Friday, July 29, 2005

Dear Starbucks Barista

Dear Starbucks Barista,

When I walked into your store yesterday, I was in a fairly good mood. My day was going well, and what better way to cap it off than a Grande Vanilla Bean Frappuccino Blended Crème? You were looking good - very cute in that starbucks barista outfit. You greeted me with a sunny "Hello!" and a pleasant smile. She's nice, I thought. I'll even deposit my change in the tip jar today. I usually don't do that. It's not that I'm horribly cheap, it's just that I know that Starbucks pays its baristas a good socially responsible wage, and you never know when those pennies are going to come in handy. But today my change would go in your tip jar, cute barista girl.

"What will it be today?" you asked. I took a quick glance around to see if anyone else was listening, because I was a little embarrased. This is Portland, a city that lives and dies by caffeine intake, and ordering a chilled non-coffee drink at Starbucks when it's less than 80 degrees out is a good way to earn oneself a disapproving stare. "I'll have a Grande Vanilla Bean Cream Blend Frappuccino," I stated discreetly. You smiled and repeated my order in a similarly mellow tone. Thank you, Dear Cute Barista Girl, you do not judge. I'm grateful for that.

But then you said it. "You know, you could upsize to Venti for only an additional 50 cents!"

Excuse me? Ahem! Dear Barista, I'd expect that sort of thing at McDonalds, but this is not McDonalds, is it? For starters, I'm ordering a drink consisting solely of crushed ice and malt powder, with a dollop of whipped cream, and it's costing me $3.89. This would be on the Dollar Menu at the Golden Arches. At least $2 gets added onto the price just because this is supposedly a more upscale establishment. When patrionizing my local Starbucks, I don't expect to have a gawky teenager attempting to sell me an upsize, supersize, biggie size, or Venti anything.

Here's the other thing. As previously mentioned, I was slightly ashamed to be ordering this drink to begin with. With those cute college girls studying dilligently at the next table, my first inclination was to confidently belt out an order for a "tall vanilla caffè mocha, skinny, not too hot," showing off my mastery of coffee chic. Such an order at the neighborhood Starbucks is intended to display one's status as a hip urbanite to his fellow hip urbanites, especially that cute one in low rider jeans. But the chilly scrumptiousness of the Vanilla Bean was calling my name; I could not resist it's alure. Then, after I risked public scorn by ordering a rather effeminate drink, you all but accused me of gluttony as well! "Not only are you a complete pansy, you also look pretty greedy too!" That's essentially what you were saying! Dear Barista, my 11 cents change went directly into my left pocket!

While I'm ranting, we need to have a word about the music you play in your store. Usually Starbucks plays crappy folk songs by hippy singer/songwriter chicks, whose CDs you sell at the bar. I'd never listen to that crap on my own, but at Starbuck's it's okay - it adds to the hip urbanite allure. But now you're starting to play bands I actually like, and it's completely ruining it for me. The other day you were playing Coldplay's "Speed of Sound" and selling their new CD. Now, I liked Coldplay. I have their two last CDs. The new one isn't bad, it's just overhyped and overplayed. Despite being bombarded with it 24/7, I still thought "Speed of Sound" was a decent song - until I heard it at Starbucks. Now I feel dirty and used...and completely disillusioned. What's next? Chemical Brothers, DJ Tiesto, and Paul Oakenfold? Radiohead? Depeche Mode? The Postal Service? The Grateful freakin' Dead? Next time, kindly let me know in advance so I can prepare myself by deleting their MP3s, throwing out their CDs, and burning their posters.

You see, Dear Barista Girl, we modern-day urbanite hipsters want to have it both ways: as hip as everyone else, but different. Despite not knowing our neighbors from Adam, we're decidedly self-conscious about the image we present to complete strangers. We need everyone to see that we're not just some country bumpkins who rolled off the last turnip truck (especially since half of us did arrive direct from red-state America!). We need to be worldly, confident, suave, yet unique and a little funky - in every aspect that defines us. So we all copy our hip neighbors - and all end up wearing North Face microfleece as we listen to The Kinks on our iPods as we walk our dogs from our 3rd floor brownstone walkup studios to the doggy park, and order a tall vanilla caffè mocha, skinny, from our neighborhood Starbucks on our way to the anti-war protest. And this lifestyle makes us feel uniquely urbane, so superior to those conformist sheep back in flyover land!

Dear Sweet Barista, Starbucks should be the very last place that'd want to shatter the illusion. It is the very bedrock that your store is founded upon. So here's some advice for a long and fruitful barista career: when I visit your store, treat me like the urbane sophisticate I want everyone to see that I am. Don't ask me if I want to supersize; it triggers repressed memories of midwestern McDonalds meals in a past life. Don't play my music, for I will be forced to either disavow that music or else acknowledge that I am, gasp, mainstream.

I was completely prepared to end this rant by departing your store in a fit of righteous indignation, but I've kinda lost the will by now. I really didn't mean to delve into social commentary, and it's tiring. Besides, all this talking has kinda made my throat dry. And I see that the temperature outside is a toasty-for-Portland 91, so that's my cue. I'll take a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino Blended Crème. Mmm, I can almost taste the frosty goodness already. Better make it a Venti.


Jimmy Little said...

Nice rant -- but way too literate and polite :-). The big question is -- why on earth were you in a Starbucks in Portland of all places?!

Sam said...

Why would *anyone* go to Starbucks in Portland? We do have a wealth of independent coffee shops and espresso stands. Indeed, when I'm actually drinking coffee, my favorite haunt is Sunrise Bagels in Vancouver. But...unfortunately, I have a severe weekness for the Vanilla Bean Frappuccino, and when the cravings start, there is seldom a Starbuck's further than a block away. *Sigh*

John said...

Nice post.

It seems to me that Starbucks has been about marketing from the very start: They really are the McDonalds of coffee.

Had to laugh the other day while having a late breakfast at Cafe Noir in Monterey. There I was, sipping a well-crafted double espresso, using their free wireless 'net, and munching a delicious "breakfast boat" (scrambled eggs, onions, kalamata olives, and salsa served on a fresh sourdough roll) and the Starbucks Radio Channel (yes, it's true) was playing on their XM radio receiver. Talk about irony.

You have to hand it to Starbucks - when overnighting in some godforsaken small town (and I don't mean Portland), Starbucks is probabaly the only place an espresso and a copy of the NY Times can be had.

Hey, it's not easy being a Bay Area liberal. ;-)

Sam said...

I think in terms of being absolutely freaking everywhere, and the lack of any local flavor whatsoever, Starbucks is indeed the "McDonalds of Coffee." However, whereas McDonalds makes no high-class pretentions and everything is dirt cheap, Starbucks markets itself as being *more* upscale than the corner espresso stand...and generally costs more. I don't doubt that many people eschew Starbucks for the local place, but obviously enough people buy into the hype to make Starbucks a very, very profitable company. Or people just get hooked on those darn Vanilla Beans!

Aviatrix said...

You're hilarious. But give me a large Frosty from Wendy's (I think it's a buck seventy-nine Canadian) and I can skip the Starbucks. I can get by on company coffee.

Jimmy Little said...

I guess I'm just a grumpy old Caffeine Fundamentalist -- if you insist on such wussy drinks as Vanilla Bean Frappuccinos, you get what you deserve :-). Me, I'm more interested in how well they do the basics -- the small espresso, the giant cappucino, the small house coffee... and bagels, dammit.

But I have to admit, when I find myself in a small Central Valley town in the middle of nowhere, Starbucks is at least a safe choice. Starbucks is the Macdonalds of coffee shops for the people who like to think they're above Macdonalds....

clint said...

well said!!