March 14, 2011

Starbucks and the Zeitgeist

They New York Times began its profile of Howard Schultz - or more accurately, Starbucks, as the behemoth turns 40 - with a dictum: Raise your hand if you remember when Starbucks was cool.

I glazed over the rest of the piece, not because that line turned me off (it didn't), but because it's not a new story. Starbucks rose meteorically, embodied the 90's as purely as boy bands and Bill Clinton, then fell hard. It's back now, financially.

But the piece throws down that initial gauntlet; Starbucks, it says, is no longer the tastemaker; Starbucks is no longer cool.

Perhaps, mid-westerner that I am, I'm not qualified to comment. Trends arrive here after they've long fizzled on the coasts, and New York is, after all, New York. Tastes are made there, then exported to the rest of the world, in fashion, food, and everything else.

It is true, at least, that Starbucks' financial rise from the ashes does not signal a similar reclamation of its cultural standing. Starbucks will never be coffee the way it was, the way Kleenex is tissue. Neither does it have that elitist appeal. There are local coffee shops everywhere now, selling single origin seasonally available beans, with pour over bars and latte art "throwdowns".

If that lost fringe signifies Starbucks is not cool, I imagine Schultz and Co. are fine with that. Tastemakers are elite, but they are also few. And Starbucks attracts the masses - if not in 90's numbers.

Though Lawrence is a sample size of one, I think it's nonetheless instructive. There is no shortage of would be elites, of people whose tastes strive to appear refined. I should know, as, in all honesty, I'm probably one myself. These people will tell you that any downtown cafe outclasses Starbucks, that there are local roasters and purveyors of Broadway, PT's, that no one who really has a taste for coffee need venture in to the land of the green apron and frappuccino.

They aren't wrong. But here's the thing: Every semester, the University Daily Kansan polls students on favorite eateries, shops, and yes, cafes. Starbucks wins. Every. Year. Is it a popularity contest? Yes. Is it won, largely because of the uncultured palates of Johnson County fraternity/sorority freshmen? Ye... Perhaps.

Does it matter? Frankly, I have no idea.

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