Boycotting Starbucks Speak

Check out this scene in a faux Starbucks from Role Models – a scene about Starbucks language and protests against it. (

And here is another play on Starbucks order (

And another (

I heard this again and again during my research.  I call it boycotting the language of Starbucks. Lots of people have told me or wrote on-line that they boycott the company’s inflated, pseudo Italian language. “I sure as hell won’t say Venti or anything,” Scott Kinder wrote on his blog, “In fact, I go out of my way to say SMALL, MEDIUM, or LARGE.  I think it’s just a marketing ploy.”  When I first started observing Starbucks, a friend said to me, “Okay, I go, but I won’t say any of those stupid words.  What is it tall means small?  That’s ridiculous.” Since then, I have heard lines just like this again and again.  Brimming with nearly righteous indignation, another person told me, “I just go right up to counter and say, give me a small coffee.” Sometimes, I imagine these language boycotters ordering their coffees in simple, clear, everyday words with their fists raised like Tommie Smith on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. A $1 medium coffee, please, and by the way, stick it to the man.

But in many ways this is really a protest against corporate power and control, an attempt to gain an everyday advantage over big companies and their spreading influence over business, politics, and even words.  At the same time, it says something about the limits of our politics, doesn’t it?

The Hangover

Coffee can’t cure a hangover says my colleague Thomas Gould.  See what he has to say in the New York Post:

“Coffee may reduce the sedative effects of alcohol, which could give the false impression that people are not as intoxicated as they really are,” Thomas Gould, PhD, of Temple University told Gould added that people who have only consumed alcohol are more likely to feel “tired and intoxicated,” and more importantly, acknowledge that they’re drunk.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal “Behavioral Neuroscience,” first compared the drunk behavior of mice to that of mice given only a saline solution. The drunk and sober mice were tested on their ability to learn a maze while trying to avoid bright lights or sounds. The drunk mice did significantly less well.

After being drunk, the mice were given the equivalent of six to eight cups of coffee. While the caffeine and alcohol combination seemed to make the mice less anxious, it failed to reverse the negative effects that alcohol had on them learning the maze.

Alcohol also calmed the “caffeine jitters,” reports, which made the mice less able to avoid potential threats.

In a press release, Gould concluded that “the bottom line is that, despite the appeal of being able to stay up all night and drink, all evidence points to serious risks associated with caffeine-alcohol combinations.”

By Bryant Simon.

Speaking Starbucks and a Sociology of Customer Service

In a recent column in the Westport News, titled “I Flunked Starbucks,” Judith Marks-White spoofs the language of Starbucks. In a familiar refrain, she talks about how she doesn’t speak Starbucks.

Me: “I’d like a small regular coffee, please.”
Barista (confirming my order): “One tall espresso.”
Me: “No, a small coffee,” I repeated. “Not tall.”
Barista: “Tall is small,” she said. “And, we don’t say `coffee.'”

She keeps the joke going for a few hundred more words. She ends with a bit more dialogue: “Can’t I just have a regular cup of coffee like a normal person?” I asked.
“This is Starbucks. We don’t do normal.”

While this piece is ostensibly about language and about an “unfortunate encounter,” it is really about the role of the employee — the barista — in the brand socializing project. Starbucks talks a lot about customer service, but the baristas also work as teachers and gate-keepers.

What Starbucks sells, in part, is belonging, and creating its own language is a crucial part of this process. Several years ago Jack Skilkret, a psychology professor at Anne Arnudel Community College in Maryland, rightly observed of Starbucks, “People go there and they fell like they’re getting membership in a little club.”

Language helps to create the club.  In order to be a part of the club, you have to speak the language. That is how insider groups typically work. The “baristas” are there to let you know that you don’t belong — you aren’t part of the club. That is what that barista is telling Marks-White. She doesn’t belong. The barista though is trying to coach her, to give her some tips in talking Starbucks. That is the employee’s role in this consumer narrative — to isolate outsiders, but also to give them the tools — and words — to belong if they want to join the club. Marks-White declines and goes home.

So what Starbucks sells, in part, is belonging. Language is key to this proposition. Outsiders don’t speak Starbucks’ insiders do. (And some loyalists have gone a step further and posted on-line guides to speaking Starbucks.)

Finally, remember Starbucks sells a mass — a mass customized product — to a broad mainstream audience, so the barriers to entry to the Starbucks clubs can’t be and aren’t too steep. Really, it isn’t that hard to learn how to speak Starbucks, and that too is part of the point.

The Morning Buzz

Years ago the Wall Street Journal did a study of caffeine and major coffee brands. Fast Company did a similar study recently. Both uncovered the same results.

A can of Coke or Mountain Dew has about 50 milligrams of caffeine.

A 16 oz. cup of McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee has 140 miligrams of caffeine.

A 12 oz. cup of Caribou coffee has 180 milligrams.

And a “tall” Starbucks has a whopping 240 milligrams of caffeine, double what you get at McDonalds.

The only drink on the commercial market with more caffeine is Jolt.

By the way, caffeine intoxication — the jitters — starts to kick in at 300 milligrams — right about what you get with a grande Starbucks.

That means you would have to buy almost two full cups of McDonald’s coffee to get to the same caffeine bang for your buck as Starbucks.

Now, as I understand it, once you get used to elevated amounts of caffeine, you need to keep getting them. In other words, it is hard to go from Starbucks — and 240 milligrams of caffeine — to McDonald’s — and its relatively underwhelming amount of caffeine. This could, then, keep you coming back to Starbucks.

And caffeine counts are no accidents. In other words, the amount of caffeine has little to do with the beans and everything to do with the preparation — the grind of the beans and the amount of water used.

By Bryant Simon

The Cost of a Cup of Coffee

How much money do you spend on coffee every month? The average cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks is around $2. If you drink two cups a day over the course of 30 days, that comes out to $120! Chances are good if you work a 9-5 job, you drink a lot more than that to get through the daily grind.

How can you save money on coffee? One great alternative to going to Starbucks is to head to your local grocery store. Buy your own coffee and brew it at home or at work. You can even purchase Starbucks coffee at many grocery stores. Odds are even if your local grocery store doesn’t stock Starbucks coffee, they stock something else that is equally good. When you purchase the loose coffee grounds, you save a huge amount of money. Preparing your coffee at home or work is fast and easy with a drip machine or a French press, and you can make it exactly the way you want it.

If you want to save even more money on coffee, one of the best options is to hunt around for coffee coupons. You can find coupons in newspapers and other print media, but it’s much easier to search online through sales and circulars. If you keep up with weekly store ads (CVS ad in my case), you will find a lot of amazing discounts on fresh coffee beans and coffee grounds. If you time your shopping trips so that you can make use of the coupons, you could cut your costs even more.

Just how much can you save? A lot of Starbucks coffee that you can buy at the store comes out to around $13 per pound. The Specialty Coffee Association of America says it takes around a pound of coffee to make forty-eight 6-ounce cups. Do the math, and that comes out to around 27 cents per cup! Multiply that across the course of a month. If you drank two cups a day, that’s only around $16—instead of $160! Now that is some serious savings! So give up that daily Starbucks run, and start searching through weekly store ads instead. You could spend even less than $16 per month to enjoy delicious coffee just the way you like it, and if you are like many Americans who love their coffee, you could save $100 or more!

The Intention of Business

The other day I got an interesting e-mail from a former Starbucks middle manager. He said that he had read my book and brought it up at a lunch with two of the early driving forces behind the company’s growth. Specifically, he mentioned a section of the book where I talk about how Starbucks, especially in its opening phases of massive growth attracted a heterogeneous, largely up-scale crowd. When one of those early operators heard this, he scoffed:”I wish we’d been that smart.”

My contact, the former Starbucks middle manager, also brought up the recent New Yorker profile of Whole Food chairman John Mackey. In this essay, Nick Paumgarten paints Mackey as a mercurial and impulsive business leader, driven by his quirks and foibles as much as calculated acts of risk-taking and planning. The former middle manager suggested to me that the larger “net effect” of companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods was “significantly more dramatic and perhaps less intentional than it appears,” adding there was so much management by opportunity and aggressiveness — surprisingly little real strategy.”

This raises some fascinating questions about intentionality and agency in business decision making. Much of the stuff written about corporations, particularly critiques of corporations and corporate culture, presume a kind of cold rationality to the way business operates. It is a largely de-asethicized or personalized version of motives and intentions, where the only thing that matters is marketing reports – often based on sneaky ethnography – and spread sheets. Surely people like John Mackey and Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks, are driven to make money, but they are also informed by their own creativity.

Still that doesn’t mean that they aren’t functioning within larger institutions and structures of knowledge (and knowledge production) that don’t shape their decisions and thinking.

Let’s go back to the idea of intentionality and the comment, “I wish we had been that smart!!” Well, maybe no one at Starbucks in the early to mid-1990s said explicitly, let’s put our stores where we will attract a homogenous crowd, but the way they went about their business, priced their products, and gathered knowledge made sure the homogenous crowd was, in fact, the outcome.

First Starbucks priced its coffee far ahead of the competition. Coffee never cost more than a dollar in the 1990s, but Starbucks priced its coffee at twice that figure. That meant that only people who had some money and wanted something better would go to the places. As I explain in my book, pricing acted as a filter keeping some people out and pulling others in (and thus narrowed the range of the crowd at Starbucks). Then, Starbucks, like Whole Food, quite wisely commissioned – or did so in house – its own market research. It located its stores at busy inter-sections and on the sides of the street where people walked on the way to work in the morning, but it also chose locations based not just on foot and car traffic but perhaps even more on average income levels of educations. Average income levels and home values these are social constructed numbers, the products of historic patterns of racism and class privilege that when combined tend to reproduce homogeneity. So led by this kind of knowledge gathering, Starbucks followed the money. The company intentionally did this because it made good business sense. They followed the data.

Of course, Starbucks’ decisions about where to put its stores speaks to the larger lie at the heart of the American Dream – for every Howard Schultz rising from public housing to the helm of one of the nation’s most dynamic corporations there are millions of poor kids who attend lousy, underfunded schools and end up in dead-end jobs and there are millions of upper-middle-class kids who favored by birth go to gleaming schools with sparkling science labs and rooms full of brand new computers. They go to college, move to up-scale neighborhoods because they have the best chances at getting the best job and that gives them a choice of any number of Starbucks to go to on their way to work.

Just to flesh this out a bit. Some of the first Starbucks stores were in Marin, California and in West Chester, New York, and not Prince George’s County, Maryland or Oakland. (And Marin and West Chester were largely homogenous places – certainly in class terms.) Today, just to flesh this out a bit more, there are more Starbucks stores in Marin County (21) than Bakersfield County (21) despite that fact that Bakersfield has three times the number of people. (About 250,000 vs. 820,000, but the average per household income in Marin is about three times that of Bakersfield.)

What I’m suggesting is that there just aren’t that many accidents in economic life – kind of like the suburbs – they didn’t just happen to develop the way they did. The logic of American consumer life produces largely predictable outcomes. High priced items start out in high-end neighborhoods. Once the upper-middle class adopts a product, it often becomes a status symbol. Once it does, those a few rung below start to consume the product, so that they look like they have some money. And then, the upper-middle class moves on to something new – another way to show off their wealth and status. That cycle – that cycle that Veblen pointed out over a hundred years ago — fueled Starbucks growth and undergirded the business moves of the company whether clearly articulated that or not.