X Close

What Starbucks has stolen Political culture starts and ends with coffee

A San Francisco Police Department police cruiser parked outside a Starbucks cafe (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

A San Francisco Police Department police cruiser parked outside a Starbucks cafe (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).


March 31, 2021   6 mins

Travelling in the United States, it took me some time to work out why coastal Americans get so worked up about “good coffee”, a drink which is easy to get hold of even in provincial Europe. It wasn’t until I explored what denizens of both coasts call “flyover country“, and experienced the fluid known as “gas station coffee”, that this near-religious obsession with its “good” variant made sense.

The fact that “good” as opposed to “gas station” coffee exists at all in the Land of the Free is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as the 1950s, the coffee trader Alfred Peet arrived in California and asked: “I came to the richest country in the world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?”

By the mid-sixties, he had set up Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Berkeley — and not long after that, he met Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker, university friends who dreamed of opening a coffee-roasting business. The three learned the method from Alfred Peet and then, 50 years ago this week, opened the first branch of their own gourmet coffee shop in Seattle. They named it Starbucks.

By 1987, when the three founders sold the company to Howard Schulz, they had six Seattle outlets. Schulz, though, had bigger dreams: by the time the company went public in in 1992, Starbucks had 140 outlets and annual revenues of over $73m. Six years later, the chain cruised into the UK market with the purchase of 56 “Seattle Coffee Company” stores, just in time to catch Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” wave.

The British reaction to appealing-but-invasive cultural phenomena from across the Atlantic is usually ambivalent, and my dim recollection of Starbucks’s arrival is that it was no exception. Its blonde wood and exposed brick aesthetic carried a faint whiff of the “Central Perk” aspirational lifestyle we’d all inhaled via innumerable episodes of Friends. And yet many of my circle felt there was something creepy about the identikit outlets and standardised chumminess. Equally, though, buying a coffee in late 1990s Britain was a game of roulette, that could result in anything from a cup of acrid instant to a sludgy filter brew. Starbucks was at least reliable.

So if the feeling toward Starbucks was officially grudging, it was also covertly appreciative, like turning up to a glamorous friend’s party and complaining about the music while filling your handbag with canapĂ©s. But perhaps we were right to be grudging. For in a sense Starbucks has sold back to us a deracinated, virtual form of something that’s inseparable from the birth of modern Britain: the public sphere.

Britain in the 1990s had little in the way of cafĂ© culture, but 1690s Britain very much did. The first English coffee house was set up in Oxford around 1650, by a Greek named Pasqual RosĂ©e. The new drink rapidly became popular, and the Londoner Thomas Rugge claimed that by the late 1650s coffee was “sold almost in every street”.

Coffee houses soon became hubs across the country for a new, radically egalitarian public life, open to all comers. In 1673, one pamphleteer described how in a coffee house “oft you may see a silly fop, and a worshipful justice, a griping rook
 a reverend Nonconformist, and a canting mountebank, all blended together”. They were also hotbeds of political radicalism: Charles II was so concerned about their role fomenting dissent that he tried to ban them in 1675. And in 1696, Jonathan’s coffee house in London became notorious as the meeting-place for members of a plot to assassinate William III.

By the early eighteenth century, coffee shop culture was the epicentre of social and commercial life. The insurer Lloyds of London had its origins in Lloyds coffeehouse, while Jonathan’s had, by the turn of the century, become the centre of London’s emerging financial services market: public lists of stock and commodity prices were posted there, turning a coffee-shop into the City’s first embryonic trading floor.

Coffee also fuelled art, literature and scandal. Buttons coffee house, founded in 1712 by Joseph Addison, housed a white marble letterbox in the shape of a lion’s head believed to have been designed by William Hogarth. Visitors were invited to post tips, news, gossip and other interesting content into the letterbox and the best would be printed in Addison’s Guardian newspaper (no relation to its current namesake).

Over time, the artistic, commercial and political spheres that blossomed in England’s 17th and 18th-century coffee houses were formalised and shifted away into their own official premises. This fuelled the creation of modern London’s magnificent architecture, from the City to the Palace of Westminster, Whitehall to Theatreland. Lloyds of London is still going — now in its own iconically ugly skyscraper on Leadenhall Street. And the trading club that formed at Jonathan’s persisted after the building burned down, eventually creating their own premises which became the London Stock Exchange.

Today, though, our commercial, artistic and political lives are increasingly independent of any physical place. The tips, gossip and witticisms that went into the Buttons letterbox now get posted to Twitter; the stock tips traded at Jonathan’s are now shared on the day-trader forums of Reddit or Wallstreetbets. Meanwhile, political radicalism happens on Discord or (when it’s not facing Charles II-like efforts to ban it) Parler.

Public life takes place online; and much of its spadework is increasingly done by lone individuals, staring at laptops in today’s reboot of coffee house culture, of which the Platonic Form is Starbucks. And in this we’re seeing the fruition of that indefinable something that made people uneasy when Starbucks first arrived.

Because although it delivered reliable coffee, there was always something unsettling about Starbucks. At the time, my social circle was much given to anti-capitalist protest; we lumped together Starbucks with McDonald’s, that longstanding byword for crass Americanisation among old-school reactionaries and anti-capitalists alike.

But Starbucks wasn’t just McDonald’s for coffee. Whether or not you like a Big Mac, the McDonald’s brand is genuinely classless: populist in palate, affordable in price, tolerant even of life’s outsiders. Chris Arnade has written movingly about how McDonald’s branches are today a meeting-point for the lonely, impoverished and left-behind people of “back-row America”.

Starbucks, on the other hand, sold an image of affordably hygienic detachment from all such messy human dregs. This new aesthetic, as placeless as an airport departure lounge, is best described with a word that’s often used in a positive way by advocates of a future where this detachment is taken to its logical extreme: “frictionless”.

The stereotypical frictionless person is neatly but unobtrusively dressed, works from a laptop anywhere in the world and pays contactless for everything. What the Starbucks brand offered was entry-level frictionlessness; an environment with reliable drinks, a standardised “third space” with WiFi and — crucially — a zone purged of modernity’s losers, such as drunks, provincials and the homeless. This table-stakes frictionlessness was designed to be just cheap enough for the new proletariat of the virtualised world: students and gig-economy laptop workers.

In other words, the company updated 18th-century coffee-house public life for the virtual age by creating standardised zones, each of which could be anywhere in the world. It offered spaces tailor-made for those who wish to participate in a public life that, even by the early noughties, was increasingly moving online, and who wished to do so from anywhere in the world.

So what, you might ask. But this severing of life from place isn’t just an aesthetic matter. Beneath the rollout of identikit coffee-shops and the geographic uprooting of the laptop class lies a question with a real-world punch: who cashes in? My friends in the “Space Hijackers” anti-gentrification campaign were calling out Starbucks twenty years ago for driving competitor establishments out of business by subsidising under-performing stores until local competitors folded. To the Hijackers, the synthetically chummy Starbucks aesthetic was a paper-thin veneer for a rapacious form of capitalism indifferent to local texture.

Two decades later, it’s clear that this combination of standardisation, convenience and the use of aggressive corporate practices to eliminate local, independent competition has become a classic template for success in the digital age. Ride-hailing app Uber, for example, based its whole growth plan on using fundraising to subsidise fares so as to drive other players (read: independent taxi firms and self-employed drivers) out of the market.

This approach to commerce rejects all allegiance to place, seeking not just to destroy local independents but also to minimise national tax liabilities. That’s principally how Starbucks paid just ÂŁ4m in UK tax in 2019 despite raking in ÂŁ387m in sales. It’s not just Starbucks either: in 2019, HMRC began investigating Uber for tax avoidance, while the Government also hopes to close a tax loophole routinely employed by Big Tech to evade tax by paying “royalties” to divisions based overseas.

But even as national governments increasingly crackdown on these new, frictionless oligarchs, the goalposts continue to move. In 2018, for example, Starbucks began restructuring away from city-centre outlets toward online ordering and drive-through. Thanks to the internet, even the standardised, placeless places Starbucks brought to our high streets are becoming redundant.

And here, perhaps, lies the clue as to why all those noughties protests against Starbucks had no impact, despite being accurate in their diagnosis. The protests focused on Starbucks; but Starbucks was never the problem. The homogenising force that first stripped the localism from coffee shops and is now digitising Starbucks outlets was never the coffee chain.

It was the internet itself. One day, we may want our neighbourhoods — our places — back. If so, we may find ourselves wrestling with how to unplug it. Or if we even can.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

moveincircles

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

96 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrew McGee
Andrew McGee
3 years ago

So why is Starbucks ‘coffee’ so utterly vile? It is little more than dirty water. These people need to take lessons from Caffe Nero or, to a lesser extent, Costa Coffee, places which know how to make coffee which could credibly be served in Italy – the ultimate test for good coffee.

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Milkshakes and baby food… that’s how I think of their insipid offerings.

Steve Hill
Steve Hill
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Starbucks? Not for me. Huge thick mugs of frothy milk with a touch of coffee in it. As far as the chains go, I prefer Nero’s. Dark roasted coffee you can smell and taste, even with a latte or cappuccino. I just can’t have more than two in one sitting though, or I get the shakes!

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Flat white or espresso in Caffe Nero every time

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Starbucks coffee tastes weak and burnt at the same time. And I can’t remember when (pre-pandemic) I had a decent cup of coffee from a coffee chain – many independents are not very much better. Perhaps disguising the taste with frothy milk or sugary syrup is part of the business model.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Way to misunderstand an article there Andrew. This is not a restaurant review, but a comment on the on-lineing of culture and society. The real thing this should all be leading up to is the

‘Virtual Town Square’, where Free Speech is designed to be protected in ‘The Town Square’ it is prohibited in the Virtual one, and the Virtual one is now the real one.

She covered the returning of the coffee house as a place of soical activity, but this is a problem, the reality is the Free Speech is protected in the public sphere, such as in the physical coffee shop, but in its virtual setting, Facebook say, such does not exist. It is a weird simulacrum of public sphere, a Twilight Zone one, where people meet to talk, but May Not Talk Freely, but are eavesdropped and censored. And I think she is inferring the Starbucks was kind of the hybridization, or precursor of what the reality is now.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Brits don’t grasp places of social congregation unless copious amounts of alcohol are involved.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Excellent point. Starbucks, the coffee, is just overpriced dreck with fancy names, but Starbucks, the place, is slowly evaporating into a cyber non-public space.

vince porter
vince porter
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

“Good” coffee, like fine wine, steak, clothes, movies, etc. have been taken over by the arbiters of taste. There is no such thing as one being better than another. Taste is subjective, and, snobbery cannot change that.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

This article addresses important questions of belonging and community.
I write from the perspective of an American. I think the problem is the lack of a common culture in our country. The internationalist, neoliberal project has been too successful. We are all ‘consumers’ now, barely even human beings anymore. And we’re being indoctrinated (or berated) to reject our history and our culture. The ties that bind are now mostly severed.
The only hope I see is for people to start creating a sense of place and belonging in their immediate environment. Small to mid-size towns are probably the only realistic venues as our cities are now too impersonal. When a sense of community grows, businesses grow that reflect that sense of community–coffee houses, theatres, food coops, etc. In practice, even Starbucks is a perfectly acceptable place for a community to meet since all it provides is shelter and caffeine.
It’s not, as the author of this article suggests, the internet that has fragmented us, although it has doubtless contributed. It’s a sustained attack on our culture and values that has led to a new, sterile, shallow-rooted culture reflected in the equally sterile decor of Starbucks or McDonalds. People can create a nurturing community if they wish, but they must be willing to pay. If your only concern is cost then small, locally-owned businesses can never compete.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“I think the problem is the lack of a common culture in our country”
I find this one of our greatest strengths.
“The only hope I see is for people to start creating a sense of place and belonging in their immediate environment.”
If you have not found this, yes, it would be good for you to do. But don’t make the mistake of believing that many of us don’t already have this.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
3 years ago

I…I’m not sure she is speaking on your personal behalf here.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

Nor am I.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“It’s a sustained attack on our culture and values…” by a shrill minority (on both sides of the culture war) empowered and sustained by an Internet built to polarise and over-simplify.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Our cities are also a collection of villages. Well London is. I always look for indie cafes. Haven’t bought from Starbucks in years. Nor will I.

Noah Ebtihej Sdiri
Noah Ebtihej Sdiri
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Metropolization, i.e., the concentration of economic activities is ushering in a new era of corporate feudalism. Wokeness is simply a mean for the likes of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to maintain their position in the social hierarchy.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

First of all, Starbucks is not about the coffee. Maybe it was originally but not now. Starbucks coffee in the UK is just OK but in America it is so weak it is undrinkable (for me).
Starbucks, after zillions of episodes of Friends, is a meeting place in the UK. It has taken the place of the pub in many villages. When I go in with my wife, I always count the customers and it is 30%men and 70% women. In cities, there are more men but not up to 50%. To me, it is a place where my wife goes for a chat with a friend. She pays ÂŁ3.00 for a coffee and makes it last for four hours. So that is ÂŁ0.75 per hour to sit in a comfortable-ish chair in a warm room. In the winter that is very good value.
I also benefit from this when I am left alone in peace in the house.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Britain in the 1990s had little in the way of cafĂ© culture…

Belfast (perhaps because its culture is in many ways distinct from the big island its inhabitants sometimes call “the mainland”) has had a cafe culture for decades. There are more coffee shops now, and the coffee has improved over the years, so now you can generally get at least passable ground coffee – in earlier days there was more of the instant stuff on offer.
Britain not so much. In fact even in the mid 2000s, when I was visiting friends in Nottingham, I was shocked to find you couldn’t get a cup of coffee in a peaceful environment after 5pm, when Ye Tea Shoppes closed. Some pubs offered an approximation, but they looked at you like you had two heads if you tried to actually order it.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I wonder if this will work?
Yes, it did. SO what was it I said about coffee that was so controversial?
There will probably be another reply along in a few days, Chris, when the mods get round to it.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
3 years ago

There are consequences to the decisions we make. Using independent cafes or small privately owned chains makes a serious difference to those businesses because every cup of coffee sold is important to them. A few more or less in a branch of Starbucks makes no discernible difference to that business.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Anyone remember the opening of Captain America’s Hamburger Heaven in the 1970’s London, how cool it was, take the tube to Leicester sq, or where ever it was, and get a real burger and fries, when all which was then available was Wimpy. And the writer does not mention Pret a Manger, a place my mother loves, I loved too, the coffee, the croissants, and it was also created by an American bushiness man in London I believe, one from Seattle who found London had horrible coffee, Seattle had already done its coffee renaissance and he pined for it, so he opened Pret so he could get a decent coffee, and wow, it took off wildly.
(this post is awaiting moderation, and I challenge anyone to say why, I edited to say this.)

Last edited 3 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Perhaps the mods are drinking decaf?

th.sleight30
th.sleight30
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I think all posts have to await moderation, actually. Don’t be getting all paranoid…

K Joynes
K Joynes
3 years ago

At the risk of rubbing gravel into everyone’s hair, I’m not sure the fundamental problem is the internet; more how easily it’s facilitated our desire for cheap, convenient, near-instant gratification.

I was an enthusiastic user of Amazon up until a couple of years ago when I got fed up with the constant reporting of how little corporation tax they paid and their lousy workers’ rights (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/10/21/is-amazon-unstoppable is worth a read). Trouble is, I prefer shopping online. I remember the days of slogging round from shop to shop for hours to get (or fail to get) what I was looking for and don’t miss them at all.

Re the corporate takeover of public spaces – it’s been going on for decades e.g. shopping malls being policed by privately-contracted security guards to keep out the undesirables so our shopping experience feels safer (Anna Minton’s book “Ground Control” is good on this). But would I rather not have dirty scary-looking beardy man muttering/barking away at me from a nearby bench? Sadly but honestly, yes.

I have met the enemy, and he is me.

I’ll put my gravel away now (for the time being anyway)….

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  K Joynes

 I got fed up with the constant reporting of how little corporation tax they paid 
Of course, you got fed up. Because the reporting never mentioned that “how little” tax was paid was due to tax law, not avoidance. Because the reporting never holds to account our noble public servants who write tax law. Because the reporting never mentions that corporations are essentially tax collectors; the tax rate could jump to 80% and all that would result is you paying more for the things you buy. I understand the visceral reaction to those stories, but they are framed in very dishonest terms.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I wonder how much tax beyond what they legally owe K Joyce would like them to pay?

th.sleight30
th.sleight30
3 years ago

Maybe what they logically owe, or ethically? Tax loopholes need to be filled, but I doubt they will be, as that would impact any number of native companies as well

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

‘the tax rate could jump to 80% and all that would result is you paying more for the things you buy.’

That’s a pretty ‘odd’ way of looking at it.

You’re effectively saying there that ‘the state’ is knowingly undertaxing these multinational behemoths so that they can charge ‘us’, the consumer, less for what they sell.

How about the potential competition to these businesses? What happened to the ones that fell by the wayside that couldn’t compete?

Do or did they receive the same ‘state subsidy’ you seem to be advocating?

Are or were their tax bills comparable as a percentage based on their sales?

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
3 years ago
Reply to  K Joynes

K Joynes you scarily described me to a tee.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 years ago

There was no coffee culture in Britain to be killed by Starbucks. The misnamed cafes sold tea and maybe instant coffee, but that was a weird thing to ask for. The communal places where the British met, and will meet again, are pubs. Starbucks has the odd family come in, or lunch time business meetings but it’s not a place for long conversations.

Starbucks isn’t identikit either. The US has a lot to answer for but destroying the none existent cafe culture of Britain isn’t one of them.

Steve Hill
Steve Hill
3 years ago

I have to admit that I don’t miss the old style British ‘greasy spoon’ cafe

john freeman
john freeman
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Hill

I used to like a good steamy coffee-bar, with a fine and raucous steam-heater and a juke-box.

Allie McBeth
Allie McBeth
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Hill

I’ve had many a good coffee in a greasy spoon but no, they weren’t great meeting places, as you would have to keep ordering to keep sitting!

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

Other parts of the UK have had more of a coffee culture.
(it’s possibly related to the increased teetotal / dipsomaniac polarisation there, with “non-drinkers” providing a core market for the cafes)

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
peter lucey
peter lucey
3 years ago

Most of our local coffee shops (before lockdown) acted as ersatz nurseries:a place for mothers to meet and show off everyone’s babies. Nothin wrong with that, and a benefit to society!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Funnily enough I read a biography of Alfred Peet recently, for work purposes. It’s called ‘The Coffee Visionary’. He was something of an obsessive, to put it mildly. The original Starbucks in Seattle was recently smashed up by Antifa/BLM. It’s all overpriced nonsense if you ask me and I certainly refuse to patronise Starbucks.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

‘The original Starbucks in Seattle was recently smashed up by Antifa/BLM. It’s all overpriced nonsense…’

Some uncharacteristically mixed messaging from you there Fraser 😉

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
3 years ago

I remember when the first Starbucks open in Brighton in Churchill Square around 1999 or 2000. I went there once; haven’t been back since, to any Starbucks. For the most part you’re being sold the brand, a place to sit and overpriced hot water that they dare call coffee. After this experience, I went home and made a NescafĂ© which is far higher quality.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

As someone with a moderate knowledge of corporate tax, I find it amazing that governments cannot get Starbucks and the like to pay a fair amount of taxes. I agree that these types of companies will have good tax accountants but still, if the will was really there….
Suppose you found that the pre-tax profits of UK-based chains were say, 5% and that Starbucks was – year after year – saying it only gets 1% or 2%. That is just fiction. A huge corporation like that won`t accept low profits in a certain country year after year.
For example, if profits are being brought down very low by using a brand licensing agreement with a group company in a low-tax jurisdiction abroad, then it is reasonable to say the price of the agreement has been set artificially high. So disallow part of it for tax. Get tax on at least the normal profit level for a domestic chain.
By the way, the UK city I go to most is Edinburgh, and there are a large amount of non-chain places serving perfectly good coffee there. So if you choose Starbucks there, you are part of the problem!
I would be interested to hear from other readers whether Edinburgh is typical of moderately-sized UK towns and cities.

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

5% pretax profit on 387m of sales is just shy of 20m. 4m in tax is 20% of that. Both of those might be a bit low, but it’s not exactly enough to dismiss as just fiction and easy pickings for the Revenue to get after.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Mitchell

Sorry, I am not really sure what you mean. I must confess to just plucking 5% out of the air – maybe 10% or 15% is what I should be saying – but I do maintain that if Starbucks is saying year after year it cannot get a good profit in a stable mature market like the UK, its profit figure is a false one based on reducing profits by an inflated royalty payment.

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

I agree with your sentiment if it’s true, but 5% return is not unreasonable. My point is that paying 1% of your total revenue in tax does not automatically suggest dodgy dealings

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Mitchell

Quite. Given the Corporation Tax rate is 19%, isn’t it about what you’d expect? I do agree with George Bruce’s wider point, though.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

There’s Bach’s Coffee Cantata too, a father-daughter generational tiff.
Continental coffee houses were very different from the Starbucks type – great big halls with overnight opening hours to service the post-booze clientele of the small hours / dawn, serving hair-of-the-dog spirits. Just as the article says, the epicentres of social, commercial and political life, fuelling literature, arts, scandal. They were the living rooms of journalists.

Nowadays we can buy DeLonghis (the cheaper models very affordable), so there’s no excuse for bad coffee. Nor for going to Starbucks.

Stephen Murray
Stephen Murray
3 years ago

My son took me to a Starbucks a few years back. He paid silly money for a bathtub of muddy water, that could never be described as coffee. I’ll stick to the Spanish coffee shops, thank you very much.

Mud Hopper
Mud Hopper
3 years ago

To hell with all the chain coffee outlets. Make an effort and find a good Italian independent.

Rob Jones
Rob Jones
3 years ago

Thank you for that marvellous article. It made a subtle point and did so engagingly with a strong narrative. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
3 years ago
Reply to  Rob Jones

Me too.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Starbucks, on the other hand, sold an image of affordably hygienic detachment from all such messy human dregs. 
Then like so many other things, SBUX got woke, and dove right into the dregs.

Steve Wesley
Steve Wesley
3 years ago

Support your local cafe! * Assuming there are any left after lockdown.
Living in Stockport, which admittedly isn’t very high on the list of hip places, ( & consequently all the better for it ) I can report that a great mug of tea is still available in various cafes around the centre, and the perfect accompaniment to a bacon and egg roll whilst doing a crossword. I’m told they serve decent coffee, but I don’t like the stuff so cannot comment either way.
What I find astounding is seeing people who’ve bought a coffee from establishments like Starbucks, walking around with what looks like a bucket filled with the stuff.
I acknowledge that I’m an 8 out 10 on the Victor Meldrew scale, but decent refreshments are still available in local cafes as opposed to an overpriced ‘experience’ in the likes of Starbucks.
* You can usually meet a philosopher or two in such cafes, and talking b‱‱‱‱‱‱s is usually not advisable.

Last edited 3 years ago by Steve Wesley
Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
3 years ago

I’ll take Dunkin Donuts over anything not from a clover at Starbucks. They simply refuse to not-torch their beans.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
3 years ago

It’s not obvious that Starbucks has been successful in demolishing smaller coffee shops. In normal times, many high streets seem to have not much else beyond charity shops and coffee shops.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago

Never did like Starbucks, far too pretentious for me thank you.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Starbucks is more bland than pretentious, which probably explains its success. If you want pretentious, go to one of those coffee places where they strain the coffee through some sort of material and charge you about five pounds for the privilege of drinking it.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes if you actually have ever been to a Starbucks pretentious isn’t the word. I’d say it’s more pedestrian. But some people can’t do a lot of choice and they get confused with the menu. Somehow the idea of just ordering a black coffee and putting in your own cream eludes them.

Dorothy Slater
Dorothy Slater
3 years ago

I never go to a Starbucks. First, I just want a cup of coffee I don’t want to have to decide if I want a short or a large – an americano, an expresso, a double expresso, something frothy that looks like a milk shake and costs a fortune and tastes burnt. I have to admit, however, that like McDonald’s, they do let you use the bathroom when the need arises without buying and for a hiker, that is bliss.
Mr. Shulz, like 50 other people, ran for president for about 20 minutes during the last election. There seemed to be no interest in electing him even though there would have been a Starbucks at the WH. Like many of the other candidates, he has disappeared with his millions into the ether never to be seen again.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
3 years ago

McStarbucks? I think that is appropriate. As for me, if and when I drink coffee, Starbucks is not on my list. I simply don’t like it. It is much to strong. So I don’t go there. Instead, I go to my local gas (petrol) station where they have this wonderful coffee maker that has four little bins on top filled with various kinds of coffee beans. You take your cup, put it under the nozzle, select the bean and the size of your drink, and in about 90 seconds you have a thoroughly fresh cup of coffee that actually tastes like it was made for human consumption…for $1.79 plus tax.

Hadyn Oriti
Hadyn Oriti
3 years ago

In my town, coastal New South Wales, Starbucks came and went, with its tail between its legs. The most popular coffee shop is aligned with a bookshop, one that has thrived post Amazon.
People still want to engage with the place; they appreciate a sense of place. And they still want to browse among the books.

th.sleight30
th.sleight30
3 years ago
Reply to  Hadyn Oriti

Ha ha! I love it! Would you believe, my home, Iceland, is the only country in the world where McDonalds came and opened a couple of restaurants, then a decade or so later, left. The premises were bought by an Icelandic restaurateur whose product is almost indistinguishable from McDonalds, but they left because their franchises have to, by law, have all their ingredients come from one of a few approved producers. It proved to be way too expensive to have to import everything and not be able to use anything local. And of course the Icelanders refused to pay the inflated prices they had to charge to make any money.

Athena Jones
Athena Jones
3 years ago

Starbucks is bad coffee anywhere people appreciate coffee. It failed in Australia because that is a land of excellent coffee. This is why Australian baristas are doing so well in major cities.
Starbucks can sell in the US because it is a land of crap coffee. It is all a matter of perspective.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
3 years ago
Reply to  Athena Jones

Starbucks initially tanked in Australia. For about 10 years they swamped us with outlets, overconfidently figuring we would automatically migrate to their fantastic, gee-whiz, Uncle Sam coffee. But we already had plenty of cheaper and tastier alternatives, so Starbucks were forced to close lots of outlets to straighten out their bottom line. They didn’t close them all, tho. There are now around 50 outlets and they are expanding much more slowly so they blend into the market.

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
3 years ago

.

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter Ian Staker
Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

I like my coffee strong but not burned which rules out Starbucks for me. I would not like to be any sort of ‘stereotypical’ person, frictionless or otherwise, but suspect I am!

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Good coffee transcends politics. And maybe even makes it better.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Peter de Barra
Peter de Barra
3 years ago

… Lloyd’s, City, is neither “”iconically ugly”” nor a ‘skyscraper’ . Those labels belong to 22 Bishopsgate. And to a few of the earlier buildings devised by it’s ’designers’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter de Barra
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

The good thing about coffee, tea or any brewed beverage really is that there is something for everyone. Plenty of choices of where to get your favorite beverage in every country and we don’t all have to like the same thing. There’s good and bad coffee everywhere.
My personal favorite is Cuban coffee which is primary in places like Miami but you can get it in any Cuban restaurant in the US. I’ve cut back to no more than one a day and if you ever try it, you’ll know why. I started drinking it while I was in college and working over the summer at a company in Miami. I’ve never been able to be without it since. I don’t think you will find many Cuban restaurants in the UK but if you do, and you like coffee, be sure to try it.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

Yes sadly we only captured Cuba for a year 1762-3 then let it go, unlike the US who have invaded it three or four times in the 20th century, and still ‘rent’ a Penal Colony there.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Perhaps your former colony or representatives of it, could open a few Cuban restaurants in Britain so you could enjoy their coffee. It’s quite wonderful. After all, many of your other former colonials have, think of all the Indian restaurants in Britain. I’m very grateful for the many Cubans who have escaped Cuba for a life of freedom in the US. They seem so as well.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Get a room you two!

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

This piece puts me in mind of a video I watched yesterday regarding the bitter PS3/360 console wars between Microsoft and Sony. Recommended, but obviously not everyone’s cup of java.

Revealing though in as much as the innovations and constant price pressure this nigh on a decade of cutthroat competition saw as these two giants slugged it out ultimately led to an overall bonanza for the videogame consumer.

On this basis, I think it is fair to say that this is a clear example where competition genuinely did its job, albeit reliant on the exceptionally deep pockets of its two protagonists, and one could argue that the arrival of Starbucks in the UK facilitated a similar drive in the coffee house market, universally raising standards, both in terms of products and services offered.

Whether you like Starbucks’ coffee or not (I personally think it’s absolutely foul, but that’s not the issue) what one cannot argue for, however, is its criminal undertaxing throughout by HMG and HMRC which effectively amounts to a state sponsored competitive advantage over those in similar businesses who are not and have not been subject to the exact same benefit by dint of their size and location.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Mark Lilly
Mark Lilly
3 years ago

Some of this sounds potentially interesting. Could we have a version in standard English?

Suze Burtenshaw
Suze Burtenshaw
3 years ago

The only reason I go to Starbucks as opposed to say, Nero’s or Costa is for their tea, which is excellent. The tea in the other places is the equivalent of cheap instant coffee if you’re a tea drinker. Perverse, I know.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
3 years ago

The problem with Starbucks is the weak, watery coffee. When I travelled to the States from Belgium, I was excited to see my first Starbucks, and very disappointed in the coffee. In England the same, while Costa Coffee was excellent. But Starbucks is advertised so much more, in films, in books. Under lockdown in Italy, takeaway coffee has boomed, not quite the same without cafe culture, but a few enjoyable moments chatting over an order, doing the social distancing mark, standing outside. As one poster says, tea took over from coffee in England for a coupleof centuries. Better not try ordering tea in Europe….

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
3 years ago

Mary, your description of what has happened . . .
a standardised ‘third space’ with WiFi and — crucially — a zone purged of modernity’s losers, such as drunks, provincials and the homeless. This table-stakes frictionlessness was designed to be just cheap enough for the new proletariat of the virtualised world: students and gig-economy laptop workers”
is profoundly accurate.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Gas stations have Starbucks. Banks have Starbucks, department stores have Starbucks. Who thinks you have to go to Starbucks to get Starbucks coffee?
Brits can’t make coffee. Although the tea isn’t bad.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago

Groundless tosh I’m afraid ….

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

We don’t really have to as we have thousands of splendid Italians only too willing to oblige.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Probably not for much longer though eh Brexit? Maybe someday the US can get some Italians too. Btw, I’ll see your Italians and raise you two Cubans.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

I thought you had millions of Italians already, Al Capone & Co?

We are a bit short of Cubans, but as I write Sinbad & Co are gathering on the beaches near Calais with their ‘water-wings’ as ‘lilos’ ready for the cross channel dash!

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Ah Charles, a bit slow on the sarcasm uptake this morning? Or should I say this afternoon? Yes, we likely have a few more Italians than you do. Shame on the Cubans though, they make a really good cup of coffee.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

Incidentally on that other site where we were amicably discussing the growth of the American Empire, your last post was reduced to one word per line, as was my reply at about 2300hrs.
Any idea what caused that? My ‘rinky-dink’ I pad,
or perhaps UnHerd’s dreadful new system or both? Either way it makes it almost impossible to read or reply!

.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Yes, I noticed that and my last reply on the subject of the US as the world’s only non imperial superpower, was also reduced to one word per line. Probably the iPads.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

Blast!
It seems to be happening again!

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago

Ey lady leave our tea alone! 😉

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Check the Boston Harbor if you want it back. Actually I like tea but not as much as coffee.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

And to think that Tea had been brought from Bombay by the greatest Public Company the World has ever and probably will ever see, The Honourable East India Company, of Leadenhall Street, London.
A company with Army of over 200 thousand men, a major Fleet, and which decided the lives of over 200million very fortunate Indians and others of Hindustan.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Yes indeed, a huge shame that it had to be done. A great waste of tea. Sometimes the ends really do justify the means.
But our tea supplies have long since been replenished so all is well.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

As my grandfather used to say: “Is this tea coffee – it tastes like cocoa?”

th.sleight30
th.sleight30
3 years ago

I only wish that Brits themselves had left their tea alone. One used to be able to get a good cup of tea anywhere, made in a pot with tea leaves. Now if you go to a so-called tea room or cafĂ©, what you get is a mug of hot (not even boiling) water with a tea bag beside it. And if you had indicated that you wanted it with milk, as often as not, the milk will be in there with the water, further reducing its temperature! It’s a total outrage!

John K
John K
3 years ago

Complete nonsense IMO.
Coffee in the UK *was* mostly bad 30-40 years ago and can still be in small sandwich shop places, but is now generally pretty good as almost all coffee cafes use high quality Italian espresso machines and decent beans with a high proportion of Arabicas. Not Java by any means, but pretty decent for the price except in airports where they increase the mark-up.
I’ve drunk coffee round the world and in maybe a dozen states in the the USA. My take: coffee in SE Asia is generally pretty bad, Aussie flat whites are too weak, but the worst is in Starbucks (scalding hot, weak and too much Robusta) and the stewed stuff you get in small diners in country areas of the US (unless they have just made a fresh pot).
Costa and Nero are both reliable (declaration of interest – I used to get coffee regularly from the first ever Costa in London in the late 70s / early 80s, and very good it was too. Even the current owners (Coca-Cola) have kept standards up pretty well).

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  John K

You can get good coffee and bad coffee anywhere. Much depends on your personal taste. We don’t all share the same taste of course. If we did everyone would enjoy British cuisine but we are a fair way from that, aren’t we?
Starbucks is awful, everyone says so and no one goes there anymore, it’s way too crowded.

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
3 years ago

I must say, the Brazilians make a delightful cup of coffee, none of this Starbucks nonsense for them.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Scott

Where do you think Starbucks gets most of its coffee? Even the Starbucks in Brazil sell Brazilian coffee.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

Brits can’t make coffee. Although the tea isn’t bad.

I’ve heard it claimed that Americans make tea with water that would be the right temperature for coffee, and Brits make coffee with water at a temperature that would make good tea. Any truth in that?

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

Interesting. No idea actually. I’d imagine there are as many ways of making tea and coffee in both the UK and the US as there are Americans and Brits.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

The Censor has awoken so my very bland reply may never appear!
Cui Bono?