Why I hate Starbucks

When Vincent’s Ear closed late last year, I wasn’t one of the people making a lot of noise about it. I’d been there maybe three times in the past five years, at most. Not that I found the place offensive or anything — I just never ended up going there much. In fact, I barely gave the coffeehouse’s closing a second thought until I was forced by a chain of events beyond my control to go to Starbucks.

Without knowing why, exactly, I felt guilty just for entering the store, as if I were violating some secret, holy law. As soon as I was inside, I wanted nothing more than to get my coffee and get out. I bristled when the cashier corrected me with a broad smile, informing me that they don’t say ‘cafe au lait’ at Starbucks: They use the Italian word. (I don’t remember what it is; I guess I’ve succeeded in blanking it out.)

I got my au lait, and I got my banana-nut muffin, and I stormed out without leaving a tip. I felt used somehow, degraded by my experience. But why? The coffee was good; the banana-nut muffin was to die for. And the service had been prompt and courteous, if mildly annoying. So what was I steamed up about?

I don’t hate Starbucks because it’s a corporate chain. I mean, sure, I hate corporate chains; I hate the homogenization of American culture that they represent. And I really hate the fact that a Wal-Mart Supercenter just opened in Asheville. But it won’t keep me up at night; I don’t hate Wal-Mart enough to chuck a brick through its window. Starbucks, however, is a whole other story.

Now before you go calling 911, I didn’t do it — I didn’t throw that brick, nor do I endorse vandalism in any form. But I understand why it was thrown. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this: For some folks, Starbucks-hating is becoming an obsession.

You know that scene in the movie Fight Club where the guys roll a giant wrecking ball into a corporate coffee shop? That’s what I’m talking about. There’s even a Web site called ihatestarbucks.com, where the company’s leaders are branded Neanderthals and much, much worse.

I don’t hate Starbucks because their coffee is bad. It’s actually quite good, and served with a pleasant attitude. On the other hand, my all-time favorite coffee shop was this little dump in Lexington, Ky., where the coffee was burnt and the service was rude and slow. The atmosphere, though — that intangible, essential element — was perfect. But the place closed down many years ago, largely because it was frequented by my peers and I, who would order a bottomless cup of the coffee of the day and sit nursing it for hours.

I’m not alone in my preference for smoky, ramshackle rooms: A lot of us would rather be served an inferior product than patronize Starbucks. We’d rather have the paint peeling off the walls than sit in a prefabricated box with ergonomic chairs and gourmet panini.

That’s not to say that any of our local coffeehouses have bad coffee or bad service. In fact, I think it would be fair to call Asheville the coffee capital of the Southeast. We’ve got a veritable cornucopia of great coffee places. I particularly enjoy the cafe au laits at Asheville Coffee Roasters on Patton Avenue downtown; Greg and Andy really know how to foam an au lait. And if I want to venture up the street, I can get organic French roast at Viva Europa and talk University of Kentucky basketball with Tim.

That’s why I hate Starbucks: because I know the names of the folks who make my coffee in the local shops. But even more than that, I hate Starbucks because when the whole coffee-house trend was first getting going, it wasn’t just about getting a hot drink that would give you a bit of a buzz. There was an entire culture built around it — a culture of nonconformity, rebellion, creativity and chain-smoking cigarettes.

Every coffee place was different. They had open-mic nights where you could watch your friends embarrass themselves. Some were set up in old houses, some in strip malls. Some had work by local artists up on the walls. Some of it was bad art, some of it was good, but it could have been painted by someone sitting next to you. Sure, the corporate places have local art up, too, but I just don’t believe they really mean it. I mean, come on, it’s a corporate chain — they care about the bottom line, not local artists who can barely afford to buy shoes.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how Starbucks doesn’t use Fair Trade coffee, how they use predatory business practices that put small coffeehouses out of business. That’s all well and good (or maybe not). But the real reason we hate corporate coffee so much is that they stole a phenomenon that our generation had created and turned it into the very things we were rebelling against. Like McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Wal-Mart and all other corporate chains, Starbucks is a major contributing factor in the growing blandness of America. It’s all about efficiency and profit, and aesthetics and culture matter only insofar as they boost business.

In the course of Starbucks’ climb toward world domination, a portion of the coffee-house culture was destroyed. It has held on in Asheville, because it fits with our local identity. But in other less-cool cities — the ones that needed the coffee places the most — something real was lost, replaced by something plastic and manufactured.

The other day, it was raining outside and I had nothing to do. I felt like reading a book, but I knew I’d fall asleep if I tried doing it at home. So I got in my car and headed downtown. I kept going round and round in my head, trying to come up with a nice place to chill for a few hours, somewhere smoky, dark and quiet. And then it hit me: I wanted to go to Vincent’s Ear.

[Freelance writer Sam Wardle lives in Asheville.]

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6 thoughts on “Why I hate Starbucks

  1. Richard

    Sorry you feel that way.
    I live in Los Angeles.
    I go to Starbuck’s daily. My baristas are Melissa, Diana, Bobbie, Jeffrey, Michael, Ginny, Kelly. Most are going to school. Kelly is pregnant with her first child. Ginny wants to be a make up artist.
    They call me Richard.
    I always order the same thing.
    When I arrive at the head of the line, it’s always there, without my having to ask.
    I read the NY Times and the LA Times, and sometimes chat with friends who come in. It’s a very comfortable place. Yes, it’s a corporation. But not everyone who works there is corporate.

  2. David

    I hate to tell you Richard, but your “baristas,” as you call them are most likely unskilled workers with dreams of becomeing something better, but have no hope as long as they work for a company that sucks the life out of them. And, they probably spit in your coffe as they smile and tell you what you want to hear. There are plenty of websites full of comments from unhappy Starbucks employees who passive-aggesively take their frustration out on customers whom they secretly mock. You are right, not everyone who works there is corporate; some who work there are left out with regard to the corporate profits. How hard would it be to meet your friends at an establishment that truly answers to the members of the community who support that establishment?

  3. TheOtherPerson

    Obviously, I find your reasons to make no sense.

    Starbucks doesn’t care that much about the overall bottom line. If anything, they can care less about it because they have other sources of income to back a store. Every drink is right or we offer remakes on the spot. Coffee is thrown out every 30 minutes. Labour is used to fresh grind coffee starting around 445 in the morning at some stores and 545 at others, depending on the time they open. Trust me, the bottom line is far from the main focus at Starbucks – It’s the people and their experience that makes them want to come back and help the bottom line over time.

    I do agree we could do more to be more of a social scene. Biltmore Starbucks could open up their awesome patio to bands and open mics while doing a coffee seminar in the corner. Charlotte Street Starbucks could do pic-nic or huge coffee tasting events with the awesome bar. Starbucks on the Parkway could turn itself into a dancing scene and serve espresso drinks in lieu of alcoholic drinks (this would be awesome for youngins.

    Anyways, these types of events take interest – and many people are against coming to Starbucks, even if their favorite band was playing there. We want to be more Asheville-Community base, but how do you do that when the culture of Asheville rejects you?

    Fact is: Starbucks buys more Fair-Trade coffee than anyone else! Done-and-Done. Starbucks gives more through CAFE(Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices (the Alternative to Fair Trade), Conservation International, The Ethos Project. They have given over $2,000,000 to Kenyan farmers to rebuild. They offer coffee based loans to farming communities so they can make it through the hard times – so when the plants are good, they are able to sell the good crop, and all of it – without ever having to worry to be paid.

    Fair Trade?Saved Lives
    Fair Trade?God
    Good, Equal, Consistent practices do.

    I’m not saying EVERYTHING Starbucks does is right – but they are doing so much more than people give them credit for. Rumors get started, and people believe them – Even if the person who starts them admits to making it up (ie Denying our soldiers getting coffee & Starbucks supporting the republican party.)

    Get over yourselves, and work with the store managers to set up community and culture events at your local Starbucks – or even talk to the Asheville District Manager to get things going!

  4. jeff

    Starbucks = retail. Retail = kids at college or adults who prefer an easy job over something fuilfilling. Sorry, but that’s how it is. Take it from me, I used to work in a cinema – when I said ‘enjoy your film’ to EVERY customer for 3.5 years, I can count the number of times I meant in on two hands.

    Fair Trade Coffee

  5. bobaloo

    I got my au lait, and I got my banana-nut muffin, and I stormed out without leaving a tip.

    Way to stick it to the man by buying their product but not tipping the worker. You punish the poor soul who had to deal with your obviously unpleasant attitude

    You could make a valid point about large corporate chains and the harm they do, instead you’re really pissed because you feel they co-opted your “culture”, coming across as a whining hipster.

  6. ricland

    I didn’t read this mess because after the first few paragraphs it became apparent the guy had absolutely nothing to say at least to me.

    I mean, he doesn’t like Starbucks. Ok, that’s an interesting premise to start with, the only thing is he goes nowhere with it.

    He just keeps stroking himself as if the act of masturbation is some kind of high art form.

    It isn’t.

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