I’ve always disliked Starbucks in the US — lousy coffee, uncomfortable seating arrangements, absence of real coffee cups (they give you a single espresso in a HUGE paper cup), bad food. But I was surprised to find that other people apparently have been dissecting the Starbucks “cafe culture”, notably a history professor at Temple University who has written a book called “Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America From Starbucks”:
“If Bryant Simon owned a coffee shop, it would not have conversation-killing Wi-Fi. It probably wouldn’t offer to-go cups. But it would have a big, round table strewn with newspapers to stimulate discussion. That sense of community is what’s missing from Starbucks, a conclusion Simon reached after visiting about 425 of its coffee shops in nine countries. And yet millions of people patronize the outlets each day. Author Bryant Simon, shown outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia, visited 425 Starbucks in nine countries, concluding that the coffee shops lack a sense of community. Simon, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has spent the past few years figuring out why. His new book, “Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks,” is meant “to be part of a public debate about what our purchases mean … (and) how consumption shapes our lives even when we don’t intend it to,” Simon said. Seattle-based Starbucks had nearly $10.4 billion in revenue in 2008. Simon, however, argues the true cost of macchiatos and frappuccinos is much greater — that Starbucks, a private corporation, has enriched itself in part by taking advantage of Americans’ impoverished civic life.”
(Read the entire article on Oregon Live.)
I have several observations about cafe culture in the US and in other countries, where there are Starbucks cafes, and they’re not as awful as the ones in America.
- No cafe culture: There is no cafe culture in the United States. Americans are all about speed and efficiency. “Time is money” is the motto of this country. Nothing bad about that, but it does not give rise to a cafe culture where people linger for hours discussing Kierkegaard.
- Cafes in Europe are for fun and socializing (over a glass of wine or beer): When WiFi just started appearing in cafes in Europe, several people told me that they did not bring along their laptops because when you go to a cafe, it’s to meet friends and (if you’re a straight guy), to look at girls. Why would you want to stare at a screen? Besides, they told me, you’ll just probably spill beer all over your keyboard (note: cafes in other countries serve alcohol, unlike in the US, where you can’t even meet a friend over a glass of wine). Could the absence of alcohol be the killer? Similarly, European cafes were very slow to adopt free WiFi because few people asked for it. That has now changed and more people at sitting in cafes working on their laptops (same in Asia).
- America’s “to go” fast food drive-by habits: Americans work much longer hours than other people, they have longer commutes, too. They’re also used to picking up food from a fast food drive-by establishment so these habits extend to cafes like Starbucks. What’s so strange about this? In Japan, where people do meet one another in cafes and where they do care about the quality of the coffee and the baked goods, I found Starbucks coffee pretty good, and the cakes and cookies so much better than in the US. They also give you real cups in Japan. And the seating arrangements are very comfortable.
- The rest of the world is becoming more like the US: whether you like it or not, the same habits that the professor complains about are becoming more prevalent in cafes around the world. More Europeans are becoming freelance or independent workers. People are working longer hours. People move more often to other cities where they don’t have a network of friends anymore (like in the US). And free WiFi has become much more common which attracts people who have laptops. In Paris many years ago, I rarely saw anyone working on a laptop in a cafe. Now there are several. On the positive side, the quality of coffee and baked goods in other countries has not slipped, so there’s still some hope.
- Technology does affect how we socialize, where we work: It’s impossible to discuss this topic without acknowledging the role of advancements in portable devices like smartphones and laptops. I just bought a 13-inch Mac Book Pro which is faster, smaller and much lighter than my old 15-inch Mac Book Pro. It’s so cute and portable that it’s begging to be carried around, like a little dog. I also have an iPod Touch, which, when connected to WiFi, is all I need for email and web browsing. If you give me free WiFi access, I’ll use my Mac and my iPod Touch.
- There are other cafes where people do socialize and the atmosphere is very different from Starbucks: Perhaps the professor should have analyzed instead why there are other cafes where the social interactions are different. What makes a cafe a “zombie cafe” (where everyone is sitting alone staring at a computer screen) versus a lively cafe? Is it the music? The baristas? Very good food and amazing coffee? The location (i.e. close to a university as opposed to the being located in center of a financial district)?
In summary, it’s hard to blame Starbucks for the “zombie cafe” culture in the US. Indeed Starbucks in other countries reflects those countries’ local cultures — people are sitting around talking, not working on laptops; the coffee, beer, wine and food are very good; they give you porcelain cups (and beer and wine glasses).
Post your observations below.