Reading Signs

This will be short. I went to the franchise — e.g. not company owned — Starbucks in Margate, New Jersey with my good friend and shoobie for this week, Rudy Fuller. As we waited in line, I looked up and saw a sign behind the counter that featured a large picture of bright red coffee berries.

The copy on the sign read: “Ethically sourcing and batch roasting for you since 1971.

Point One: As I told, Rudy, there really was no such thing as ethical sourcing in 1971. Fair trade labeling didn’t get started until the 1980s. Starbucks didn’t start selling fair trade coffee until activists pressured the company into doing so. In other words, it didn’t jump on the bandwagon, it was pushed on. Still, what the company means by ethically sourcing is anybody’s guess. They have simple declared themselves ethical. Today, Starbucks is the world’s largest consumer of fair trade coffee beans, but that only represents only 10 percent of its total coffee purchases.

Point Two: Starbucks hasn’t batch roasted unless you count by the tons since 1971.

And remember, Starbucks is doing this for “you,” for us.

Okay Rudy, I know that is more than bargained for while getting a early morning vacation iced coffee, but I couldn’t take that sign’s (deliberate) misrepresentation. On to the beach.

Starbucks Looking to Buy Peet’s

As insiders have long predicted, Starbucks is looking to snatch up Peet’s. Obviously this filled with irony, since Gerald Baldwin, one of Starbucks’ three original founders, is the owner of Peet’s.

But really this will be a bad deal for Starbucks. That’s not because Peet’s doesn’t have value; it does. Actually its coffee credentials and credibility are much, much stronger than those of Starbucks. Even though, Peet’s sells mostly dark roast coffee, no one calls it, “Charbucks.” And no one, gives out bumper stickers that say, “Friends Don’t Let Friends go to Starbucks.”

Yet the day that Starbucks buys Peet’s is day that Peet’s real and cultural value falls. Just the association with Starbucks at this point will turn off and turn away Peet’s most loyal customers. One of my friends posted the article hyerlinked above about Starbucks thinking of buying Peet’s on her Facebook page with this simple message attached, “NO!” Again, this suggests that a Starbucks association would have a negative impact on Peet’s — in many ways undermining the very strong image that Peet’s possesses and making the company worth less it is acquired by Starbucks.

That just the way it is and this state of the Starbucks brand these days.

Reading Between Latte Lines

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s bestselling new memoir about bringing the coffee giant back from the brink of collapse strikes a non-partisan tone. Little of the Brooklyn-raised business man’s blue-ish past is on display here. He says nothing about latte liberals or cappuccino conservatives or even macchiato moderates. He gently applauds Barack Obama’s election hailing it is a moment of racial progress, not as a repudiation of the Iraq war or failed conservative policies. He doesn’t discuss the President’s health care initiative or his attempts to stimulate the economy.

Nor does he grapple with several recent moments when Starbucks got pulled into the political crosshairs like when ill-informed rumor mongers in the Middle East charged the company with aiding Israeli defense forces or when pistol-packing coffee drinkers tried to draw Starbucks into the gun control debate. Schultz brews up a product in his book, Onward, much like his brand these days, aimed at the solid middle of the mainstream. The book is kind of like a vanilla latte–it offends no one–unless of course you are put off by business titans trying to sound the average guy in a Starbucks line.

Read another way, though, Schultz’s book can be seen as a deeply political, even troubling, treatise on the current state of civic life and political engagement in America. In the preface to Onward, the rock star CEO, as a cable show called him one time, contends that in recent years, “a seismic shift in consumer behavior was under way, and people became not just more cost conscious, but also more environmentally minded, and ethically driven. Customers were holding the companies they did business with–including Starbucks–to higher standards.” (p. xiv) Later on, he remarks, reflecting on a conversation he had with rock star and famed go-gooder, Bono, “People want to do business with companies they respect and trust, especially in the current climate.” (p. 200)

Schultz adds another revealing clue to what’s happening in the larger political realm as he discusses one of what he calls Starbucks’ “courageous” moves that led the firm back to profitability. In the run up to the 2008 election, Schultz lamented that only 54% of Americans “cared enough”–his words–about the state of things to vote. Hoping to change this–in a nonpartisan way of course–he decided that Starbucks would offer a free tall, meaning small, cup of drip coffee to anyone who came into one of its 11,000 plus U.S. stores on Election Day and said that they had voted. When the ballots were tallied, it turned out that 62% of eligible voters participated in the election and 2 million of them went to Starbucks for a coffee that day. (Of course, these are rough numbers, and at the last minute, the Federal Elections Commissions ruled that Starbucks couldn’t create an incentive for people to vote, so anyone who asked for a cup of coffee got one.) Still, Schultz declares in Onward, that this was a “seminal day” for his company (p.215) as a “sense of community enveloped the stores.” (p.216)

When Schultz’s seemingly contradictory statements about people looking for socially responsible companies and not caring enough to vote without some liquid incentive are lined up next to each other, we get a clearer sense of the state of current American politics. Social commentators, like Harvard sociology professor and author of the new classic Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, have talked about how Americans have lost faith in their political institutions. That’s the turn-out issue. But many people haven’t stopped looking for solutions to big problems. As Schultz notes, and numerous polls back him up on this, more and more Americans want a cleaner environment and better treatment for the people who grow and serve their food. Yet because of their dwindling faith in politicians and political institutions, they have, in a way, outscoured their politics. In those long ago days of the New Deal and Great Society, consumer citizens looked to the government to solve pressing problems. Not any more.

As Schultz’s book implies, many of us now express our politics principally through consumption. In other words, we look to corporations to do what we used to expect the government to handle. This, of course, presents companies like Starbucks with new challenges and new marketing opportunities. (Schlutz, though, would call this doing the right thing.) If a brand can offer, or credibly say it offers, a solution to the big problems people care about the most, it can win and retain customers in an intensely competitive market where there is little product differentiation between firms, like the U.S. coffee market. If it wants a larger share of that market, though, it has to present its solutions as non-partisan, because partisanship, except in the country’s most faithful Red and Blue corners, is probably the most discredited stance in our current political moment.

Schultz is right. There has been a seismic change. Even as talking heads chatter away from morning to night on Fox and MSNBC, the center of political gravity in the U.S. has shifted from the electoral realm to the buying realm. In this arena, politics, not surprisingly, have become by design easier and less contentious. What company wants to alienate a segment of the market right off the bat? Why would any large firm sell divisive politics? Even as it enters politics, why would it call what it does politics? It is doing right.

Like everything, though, there are costs associated with the change to corporate generated non-partisan politics. While informed buying can lighten carbon footprints and provide relief to farmers in the developing world, this form of civic engagement can also make more genuine politics fade away. When a company like Starbucks takes up political action, it tells its customers that they are making a crucial difference through their buying choices. Essentially its allows customers, and customers allow themselves, to wash their hands of the problem with a single guilt-free purchase. Buy a shirt and help AIDS-besieged Africa. Done. Buy a vanilla latte and save the planet. (It says that on the cups.) Done.

Clearly, the idea of lending a hand has value, and keeps customers coming back for more khakis and lattes. But this isn’t something companies like Schultz’s Starbucks want to talk about too much, even in ceo memoirs (Starbucks, by the way, doesn’t capitalize this abbreviation, so that’s the way Schultz writes it throughout the book), because if they do, buyers might see, for instance, that purchasing a latte served in a to-go cup made from recycled material that isn’t itself recyclable, isn’t really a solution to the problem, it is a cover up. It is a band-aide that doesn’t sting. But it is also, as Howard Schultz suggests between the lines, good business in this de-politicized political moment.

Green Fatigue

More Green Fatigue?

This isn’t a riddle. But the question is how does corporate America celebrate Earth Day? The answer, it seems, is take out an advertisement in the New York Times.

On April 22, 2011, Coca Cola announced in the paper its new water battle made with 30% plant-based plastic. A few pages later in the front section, TD Bank proclaimed that, “Green is in Our Nature. Macy joined in the celebration, offering half-off discounts to customers who recycled their cosmetic containers.

Despite the expensive ads, all isn’t well with green commerce. Just below the fold on the front-page, the Times reported on Earth Day: “As Consumers Cut Spending, ‘Green’ Products Lose Allure. The headline pretty much gave the story away. The article argued that the “love affair with green products, from recycled toilet paper to organic foods to hybrid cars was ending, “faded like a bad infatuation.

As one analyst quoted in the article said, “if it’s one or two pennies higher in price, they’re not going to buy it. But this is a rather narrow to see buying green buying or any other kind of buying. American consumers, especially the middle-classes, who were initially the largest block of green purchasers, don’t really buy all that much based on price alone. They carefully spend their money to establish an image and identity. They spend the most to distinguish themselves from others, not to keep up with the Joneses, but to separate themselves from the Joneses. This kind of distinction through buying requires a little scarcity. If everyone can get it, whatever it is, it isn’t worth as much. If we think about buying this way, there is probably another way to account for the drop in spending.

As early as 2008, some analysts started to notice what they called, “green fatigue. By this time, lots of people and organizations started to act green. Cities were going green. Universities were going green. Soft drink companies, banks, and cosmetic makers were also green. Even Fritos, then Walmart, went green.

In this climate, consumers couldn’t distinguish themselves from others the less informed or less caring by buying green anymore. Caring about the planet has lost some its scarcity.

Perhaps the overabundance of green things and ideas explains even more than a few pennies here and there why some New Recession-era consumers are taking their business elsewhere. They are themselves tired of the environment and they don’t see its utility anymore as an image-maker. That of course doesn’t bode well for the planet and the long-term lightening of carbon footprints.

Deli Chatter

Inspired by Ted Merwin’s October 10 talk, When Harry Met Sally: The Jewish Deli in American Popular Culture, Professor Bryant Simon took grad students Dylan Gottlieb and Seth Tannenbaum to Famous 4th Street Deli for a nosh. Here’s what went down.

[Plates of food arrive: heaping mounds of whitefish, capers, scrambled eggs with nova and onions, bagels (everything and pumpernickel).]

Dylan Gottlieb: Wow, that looks goodand so much! Bryant, what are your memories of eating deli from growing up? And why do you think that these types of meals continue to hold such an emotional appeal for Jewish fressers, even now?

Bryant Simon: My memories of eating deli are almost all at home. They begin with waiting in line on Sunday mornings with my dad. Of my parents friends eating and talking (and talking and eating). Of the food being out all day long. Of those of friends of parents eating fish in the morning, and then having some corned beef and cole slaw in the afternoons.

As a teenager, I ate deli  on my own. I used to go to a place in Vineland, NJ, a bar/restaurant owned by a family, the Terrises, and sit at the bar and order a corned beef special with a birch beer (in a frosted mug.) I didn’t pay, the bill went to my parents. Later when I was in graduate school, I worked for Mr. Terris at Lou’s (famous) deli in Ventnor, New Jersey.

Another thought. The deli is for me now both nostalgic (for sure), but also a place of coming to terms with excess. With the anticipation of getting plates with so much (and how great that is) comes the anxiety of plenty. What to do with all that food?

DG: Seth, what are your memories of eating deli? Where’d you go? What kind of significance does this food have for you?

Seth Tannenbaum: Unlike Bryant, my memories of eating deli are mostly not at home. Sometimes my family would go to Hymie’s in Bala Cynwydbecause my father went to Haverford and knew it from his college days. We also had go-to delis near both of my grandparents’ houses. Moish and Itzy’s in Newtown, PA and one I can’t remember the name of in Staten Island, NY.

Needless to say, going to delis was a family affair for me, but unlike Bryant, it was mostly a special occasion. We’d go to a deli as a treat, or because we were visiting family. We didn’t start bringing deli in until my grandparents really weren’t well enough to go out to a restaurant. Not surprisingly, I associate deli food with family.

Perhaps the best part of the deli experience though, was making a meal (or a midnight snack in my teenage years) out of everyone’s leftovers.

I know we’ve talked about this before, but why do delis seems to always have HUGE portions? (Dylan, I hope these leftovers are scrumptious.)

DG: That’s a good question, Seth. I think there are (at least) two possible answersone historical, the other psychological.

My first explanation draws from Hasia Diner’s 2003 book Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. (Diner will be coming to speak on Jewish immigrant food at Temple University on October 30.)

Diner argues that immigrants came to America not just for the promises of economic opportunity or political freedom, but for “tables heaped with food. Fleeing deprivationor outright starvationin their home countries, Jewish migrants in particular experienced their journey as a transition from privation to plenty. Decades on, food remained at the center of migrants’ lives: Jews continued to celebrate their passage from Old World to New by cooking up towering apple cakes and elephantine matzah balls.

Diner’s story sounds plausible, at least for the first few post-immigrant generations. But something tells me that for us third- or fourth-generation folks, deli’s oversized appeal has less to do with hazy memories of the Old World than it does with nostalgia for our own childhoods.

It’s like this: when we were kids, Grandma (or Mom, Dad, whomever) served us comforting foodbrisket, kugel, bagels piled high with scallion cream cheese. Even if the servings were modest by adult standards, to a 7-year-old, the scale was overwhelming. Clouded by the haze of youth (and steaming chicken broth), we began to conflate comfort and abundance.

Now when we want to recapture a bit of Grandma’s TLC, we go to Jewish delis that serve the heaping portions evocative of our childhood. Granted, some restaurants (Famous 4th Street, I’m looking at you) take this to a hyperbolic extreme, slinging some comically zaftig sandwiches. But the idea’s the same.

Of course, I might be wrong. It could be all about value: Jews love nothing more than heaping servings for fair prices. Reminds me of the old Groucho Marx bit that Woody Allen retells in Annie Hall:

“There’s an old joke: two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’

Bryant, do you think I’m right about deli’s emotional resonance? Why else would people keep coming? And who, exactly, is in these delis these days? Does deli’s appeal translate to those who didn’t grow up with it?

BS: Dylan, I have been thinking of that Annie Hall/Catskills joke since we started this deli conversation.

Clearly there is an emotional resonance to the deli, but at the same time, I think a place like 4th Street and Carnegie’s in New York have become destinations dining spots. They are part of the tourist and bridge and tunnel landscape of the city.

People go to remember their past and their parent’s and grandparent’s past. They go because these places speak, perhaps, to what cities offer  a version of diversity that includes old world-ish ethnicity. They go  dare I say it  in search of authenticity. An authenticity absent in a world of Paneras and Subway sandwiches.

But mostly, I think they go for the spectacle  the spectacle of the food, the presentation, and yes, the size of the portions. This is literally conspicuous consumption. They ooh and ahh at their plates as they are dropped at their tables. They talk about the size of the portions. How can anyone eat this much?

It is the spectacle of excess  always a sure seller in our world of Donald Trumps and the biggest, newest, and flashiest. That way, the deli gets it both ways  it can be both authentic and over the top at the same time. How about that for an emotional connection?

ST: Not to brown nose, but I think Bryant nailed the dual offerings of the deli that draw third and fourth generation Jews from far and wide.

Thinking about eating deli as a spectacle of excess leads me to think about the performative aspect of eating at one. Here at 4th Street, we’re sitting in the window, essentially advertising how excessive our portions are.

Imagine someone sitting on the park bench across the street, guessing at our conversation as the food arrived, as we survey what was left after we were full, and then again as we ask the waitress for a to-go container. I’d be willing to bet that they’d get the gist of our conversation pretty well just from our body language. Almost as if we were performing in pantomime. After all, you do comport yourself differently in a deli than some restaurant that just got four bells from Craig LaBan. That might be a subject for another day though.

DG: I think you’re on to something, Seththere’s nothing like a deli breakfast to get people kibitzing. Maybe it’s all of the pictures on the walls, the ghosts of Jews past, that get us in that convivial mood. (Or it could just be the free coffee refills.)

Either way, it’s time for the check and a to-go container. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not about to let this ridiculous mound of whitefish go to waste!

The Cost of Cheap in the Morning

Last weekend, my oldest son played in a baseball tournament at the somewhat misnamed venue, “Sports at the Beach.” A quick internet search revealed that the fields were nearly twenty miles from Rehobeth Beach. Thinking that we wanted to be closer to the games, we decided to stay in Georgetown, Delaware. The only hotel there with a pool — a must for kids — was at the Comfort Inn. Of course, the price wasn’t bad and the room included, as the website boasted, a “free hot breakfast.”

After two days of making our own waffles, serving your own microwaved sausage and pre-made perfectly round egg circles along with donuts, danish, and Fruit Loops, I began to think — with the debate over the debt ceiling blaring on the televisions in the background — about real costs of free and cheap.

Everything at the Comfort Inn was disposable. The cups and dishes were paper or plastic and the flimsy white utensils were also plastics.

For my family of four, we went through at one breakfast, three large paper plates, two small paper plates, three paper bowls, two paper cups (plus two more in the room), two plastic lids, four plastic cups (plus three more from the room), five forks (two broke) , three knives, three spoons, and one plastic yogurt cup. We had a small spill so that used more than 10 napkins as well.

So what were the costs of this free and cheap meal I wondered?

Well, in some ways, the first thing is jobs. In the old days before the Comfort Inn and the automated check out at the Rite Aid, I guess we would have stayed at a Howard Johnson (or something like that) or a family owned motel. We probably would have gone our for breakfast and spent in today’s dollars $40 for our pancakes, juice, coffee, and omelets. Instead of us doing the work including the cooking ourselves as was the case with the waffles, someone else would have cooked the food and served the meals and got paid. Now these aren’t, and never were, glamorous jobs, but there is a way in which the culture of cheap is closely related to the really dangerous culture of cutting jobs. Paying might mean breakfast costs more, but it also circulates money and generates revenues (the part of the debt ceiling debate that some would say got far too little attention).

What about all the trash generated by our free breakfasts? As we all know from watching any buffet line, the psychology of “free” means we all take more, way more than need or often will eat. This adds to the trash we produce (and the calories we consumer. More on that below.) Now who pays for that? All those paper plates and cups and half eaten waffles have to do somewhere. First stop is the trash. All this waste,in turn, weighs down the plastic trash bags (a petroleum product by the way.) These in turn weigh down garbage trucks (again requiring more gasoline). Each time we use gas or petroleum we are implicated in our costly foreign policy, no? Another cost. And then there is all that trash that goes into the landfills or gets burned up and floats through the air. Cities, counties, and states pay for this and have deal with the trash and the pollution, In a sense, we are all subsidizing cheap here.

Same with the food. Except for a few sad looking apples and maybe the Raisin Brand like cereal, there wasn’t anything at the Comfort Inn breakfast table that you could confuse with healthy. Belgian waffles from a mix, donuts, sausage, and those strange looking little egg saucers the size and thickness of air hockey disks — these are all high fat, sugar-laden foods, just the kinds of foods that add to the our growing national health crisis. As numerous commentators have pointed out, we are, as a nation, growing bigger all the time and there is nothing free here. By some estimates, a fifth of the nation’s health care costs go towards paying for the illnesses and treatment related to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity related ailments — and this too is a cost we all surely share.

Really the allure of cheap isn’t just a Comfort Inn thing or a Wal Mart thing. As the debt ceiling dialogue revealed, it has saturated our political culture. Cheaper government now, many clearly think, won’t entail costs later. But are they right? Isn’t everyone indirectly paying for my Comfort Inn “free hot breakfast”? Isn’t cheap just a form of deferred spending? Shouldn’t this be the basis of a new national conversation — a real honest discussion of the long-term costs of cheap and if we can afford them?