Saturday, February 23, 2008

Starbucks Fatigue

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)


  1. Maybe it's because we don't have a Starbucks on every corner, but the stores that I go to seem pretty true to the Starbucks ideal. The staff seems very attentive to customer service and the stores are neat and clean.

    I played gold with a winter visitor who lives on Long Island the other day and he remarked about the slower pace of life here. Maybe that has something to do with it.

  2. DC Starbucks are still well managed, have cheerful people working there, and are clean.

    I've never been a big fan of their coffee. Compared to Peets (which I have mailed to me every month from Berkeley) Starbucks coffee is just so-so, but I still patronize Starbucks, because as a company they are so good to their employees.

    What a shame that it's on a decline in NYC. Certainly there must be great cafes in New York, yes? Or ... no? I've had delicious coffee in little Italy, though that's a long way from where you live.

    A life without good coffee? Yikes. What's the point??

  3. Starbucks cannot, with all the sweet syrups, caramel, and flavorings, make an honest good coffee. Plus they do add caffeine to their coffee-- which has been documented in National Georgraphic and other publications. Why would I want to have a coffee that has been so altered and super charged? I cannot savor that!

  4. ze best coffee i had in nyc is in the lower east side-- the old italian pastry cafes there. Near 11th and First Aves.

  5. McStarbucks tried to muscle in on our campus coffee business, but they just did not have the high quality we were looking for.

  6. Our local Starbucks can be either clean and friendly or a sticky mess with a group of female baristas who chat and ignore the customers. It just depends on when you visit. They often give you a very water Cafe Americano and either argue when you return it, or blame the machine--which seems to have been "on the fritz" for over a year. It is a total crapshoot--so why bother--the village has cafes that serve good coffee, but often our visiting tourists from the midwest love Starbucks, so we have to take them there.

    there is one barista who is quite nice and dedicated, but he can't be there 24/7.

  7. Did you say STARBUCKS? I LIVE in the land of Starbucks, Mister! My friends and neighbors work for them, too. Personally, I don't much care for their coffee - never have. It's over-roasted! Out here we have a TON of much better coffee joints (Cafe Vita, Victrola, Cafe Ladro) - many of them smaller chains (2 or 3 cafes). But, Starbucks is still popular here, too - and, there are some areas of the city that have 5-6 of them in various forms in a single block. I patronize one, and it's because the staff is very sweet and fun, has been there for a while and it's well located on my way to Seattle University.

  8. I love the and mom n' pop coffee joints myself, and if mom n' pop open another location or two, they can still be hands-on quality wise. A happy friendly staff is part of the quality.

  9. Dennis tried to enter a Starbucks location but was stopped by the snooty barista who was sweeping up cigarette butts near the door.

  10. I think the last thing Dennis needs is caffeine. :)

  11. Jan 14 post on my blog tells of my SB experience.

    I was alerted by Prof MB and enjoyed the read.

    And yes, in most SB, no one actually drinks coffee.

    Except for the Black Apron Coffees sold a few Xs a yr, SB sells inferior quality beans and a bad roast, that equals a bad tasting coffee, no matter what you do with it.


  12. "McDonald's with earth tones" - like that.
    And now from the international set: we buy our coffee from a small "torréfacteur" in a smalll town called Lavaur in the Midi-Pyrénées. The crowd is...what crowd? The staff mean the owner? He roasts and grinds to match our stove-top moka machine.
    I know. Hate me, see if I care. I'll still drink a cup to your health and happiness.

  13. hmmm i really prefer independent coffee shops. the best coffee i had was in a little grimy but fab cafe place in Barcelona.
    i mostly prefer tea but have come to accept that i shouldn't expect a decent cuppa outside the UK.


    i LOVE this photo. just wonderful colours, and i like how the doorway is bricked up and then painted over too....

  14. the best coffee i ever had was in a hotel in Budapest--Hungarian coffee who'd a thought!