Saturday, February 23, 2008
I saw on the news that Starbucks is laying off several hundred employees. I know the economy is bad, but this is scary. And yet, not wholly unexpected, as I’ll explain in a moment.
In New York, if there’s one thing that’s a constant in life, it’s a packed Starbucks. Sometimes the line is only a few people deep, but often it’s more like six or eight people deep, and forget finding a place to sit. (I’m usually stuck behind people getting triple-skinny-latte-mochachino-somethings, when all I want is a tall coffee -- but that’s another story.)
Everyone jokes about how there are too many Starbucks in this town -- and it’s absolutely true, because sometimes there’s a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks -- yet they are always full. So apparently the demand is there.
Quality, however, is another issue entirely.
Years ago, in the late ‘90s, going to Starbucks was kind of a special event. In my corner of Florida, the only Starbucks cafes at that time were in Barnes & Noble bookstores. I’d take my journal there, get a coffee and write for a while. I felt like I was getting an exceptional product from skilled staff.
Now, pressing into these crowded New York stores, I no longer feel that way. Customer service (if it can be called that) has been in a precipitous decline at Starbucks. There seems to be a lot of employee turnover, and I don’t get the impression that anyone working there has been very carefully trained. (The other day I heard a customer ask the guy behind the counter which of two drinks was better. His response: “Oh, I don’t drink coffee.” D’oh!)
Far from being special, Starbucks has turned into just another fast food experience. The tables and condiment stations are grimy, the furniture is worn -- it’s McDonald’s with earth tones.
Now, some of this has to do with our culture. Ten or fifteen years ago, quality coffee and cafes were new in many parts of the country, leading to a certain level of consumer excitement that inevitably subsides over time. And in New York, as I’ve said, these are busy stores -- they’re bound to experience wear and feel a bit like a cattle chute.
But still, I’m not surprised that Starbucks has lost some of its mystique and, consequently, its business. I continue to go to Starbucks, but lately I’ve also made more of an effort to patronize other, independent coffee purveyors. The coffee may not even be as good, but somehow, I enjoy it more.
(Photo: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Feb. 2008)