History professor Bryant Simon traveled to more than 400 Starbucks locations to uncover what the coffee giant says about our society.
When did a small become a tall and a medium become a grande? Have you ever let someone skip you in line – not because you didn’t know what you wanted – but because you didn’t know how to order it? And why do those who have mastered Starbucks lingo seem to be in some sort of elite club?
Some people might feel a false connection with strangers carrying a coffee cup with a green logo, when in actuality, they know nothing about them – other than that they drink Starbucks coffee. The white cup is semiotic to success and to culture.
“It’s a way in which people both express who they are but express how they want to be seen and who they want to be,” said history professor and American studies Director Bryant Simon, author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks.
Simon wrote a book about a place many Temple students visit every day. Visiting more than 400 Starbucks venues in 10 countries, Simon was curious about how people used Starbucks as a public space. Everything but the Coffee suggests a simple purchase says something about who we are as consumers and what we want and expect in our lives.
“People want a community,” Simon said. “People want a sense of belonging. People want a part of the relationship. I think that Starbucks understands that, and they sell us a very thin version of it. They sell us an illusion of community.
“But I also think we don’t know how to create community at the same time. There is no doubt that Starbucks understands this concept, and they market themselves as a community place.”
Regardless of the location, there are no surprises; Starbucks is a predictable place. But with so many lunch trucks on Temple’s campus, why go to Starbucks for coffee? Is it because you know how it will taste, how much it will cost and exactly how to order it? Why not pay $1.25 for the same amount of coffee?
“It’s about [American] culture,” said Simon, holding the iconic white cup to his mouth, taking a sip of his tall roast. “This coffee might taste better if I drank it slower. This coffee might taste better in a Styrofoam cup. But I might have to go. I might have to leave right away.”
The Starbucks in the TECH Center is open 24 hours a day. Simon said the fact that a Starbucks sits in that location says a lot about Temple and the expectations of its students.
“Why didn’t they let an independent owner put their store in here?” Simon said. “I think they put [Starbucks] here to reassure suburbanites that [Main Campus] wasn’t as urban as they thought. The moment that Temple decided to put a Starbucks here — that meant something. That meant we were getting better coffee maybe than we had before, but a local owner lost the opportunity to have that coffee shop.”
But Starbucks wasn’t created to be the mainstream business it is today.
The original owners were three guys who wanted to create an authentic coffee shop by taking the value of the 1960s counter-culture and creating a business model out of it. They thought they were opening a niche business for people who wanted a community coffee house.
When current CEO Howard Schultz took over, he had a different business model. The first owners were interested in creating something as close to authentic as they could, whereas he understood the value of authenticity and wanted to market it.
“Starbucks is in the business of giving people what they want,” Simon said. “That’s why there is WiFi Internet in the stores. It gives people a place to go and do work, but it also is another barrier to the community that could exist.”
Simon said after ordering a drink, the atmosphere of Starbucks becomes secluded, and most people sit by themselves, typing away at their laptops with their headphones on. College campuses can be an exception, with students meeting between classes, but if someone flashes a dirty look for talking, it can still feel like interrupting a quiet study hall.
“I don’t think it’s Starbucks,” said Simon. “I think it’s also the way we’ve socialized in the last 20 years. There’s a set of things we do to make sure we don’t have to talk to strangers.”
Simon said authentic community and culture are being overshadowed by the Starbucks’ status.
“In my mythical coffee shop, you don’t get WiFi,” he said. “And maybe that encourages you to talk to someone.”
Melanie Menkevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.