A reflection on Starbucks in the US: lack of cafe culture and the role of WiFi

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.

Comments

  1. I don’t think the US is without cafe culture. You just need to know where to look, and it’s not Starbucks. Take the cafes in North Beach S.F., which I’m sure you’ve visited. Starbucks is to Americans what the coffee pot is to the European worker. It’s coffee for the average person, those who need to get somewhere soon – so, yes, on-the-go. I don’t think it has replaced any cafe culture… just simply got LOTS more people drinking the addictive substance (outside of home/work). You might perhaps see a greater social/economic cross-section in Starbucks versus traditional cafes in both the US and Europe.

  2. You’re correct to say that cafe culture exists in some parts of the US, mostly where there are universities. But the Starbucks business model is based upon hundreds of thousands of coffee outlets (I hate to call them “cafes”) across the US. That means they have to appeal to the tastes of the vast majority who favor quick takeaway coffee and sugary buns.

    By contrast, look at the what small local cafes like Blue Bottle (my favorite) are doing in SF. Blue Bottle has the best coffee and serves it in real cups when you are drinking coffee in the cafe. They are not a large national chain so they can focus on quality and service.

  3. Arnon Kohavi says:

    I agree that most cafes in San Francisco are “Zombie cafes” where people simply stare at their laptops and do not attempt to have a conversation. How many cafes in San Francisco have good music in the background? not many. Even places like Ritual, Cafe Roma, Epicenter and others suffer from this.
    Initially I was in favor of free WiFi in cafes, but maybe it is not the right place for that.

  4. Good reflections in this post. My two cents worth is that (a) Americans are less comfortable interacting with strangers and (b) Starbucks, with its awful coffee and paper cups, attracts the most American of Americans. When was the last time you had a good conversation with a stranger in an elevator?
    Europe is generally more open about interactions. Interesting you did not compare to Asia, where some cultures avoid eye contact on the bus or subway.
    WiFi is great in places that drive efficiency, like Starbucks. It is less appropriate wherever we have the “cafe culture” — few and far between.

  5. Some Asian cultures (the northern ones) avoid eye and body contact. But people in southeast Asia (e.g. Philippines, Bali) are much more friendly and they do make eye contact.

    There are a lot of people who do appreciate good coffee here in SF. Witness the long queues at any Blue Bottle cafe. But there are not enough people like this to support a huge national chain like Starbucks, which has to appeal to the vast majority.

  6. Carol Anne says:

    Come try Centro Coffee House, in Placerville, California. I like to think of it as the “Community Center” of the City. It’s right in the center of town, at the landmark belltower, and it offers WiFi. But, more importantly, it serves coffee in ceramic cups or paper (I prefer the latter). The music is subtle, and encourages conversation. There are at least three semi-regular groups who’s members meet there over coffee every morning, ranging from 5 to 12 people. The City officials are there every day, accessible to anyone with a question. The owner, Gregory Phelps, has done a marvelous job of creating a community spirit. I will concede that other coffee shops (including Starbucks) have mostly closed, because they don’t understand how to make that “spirit” happen.

  7. Still, I think saying you are looking at Starbucks to find cafe culture is like saying your focusing on McD’s to find fine dining… Starbucks is primarily a *store*, not a cafe. It is mass-market coffee, plain and simple. I also don’t understand some of the comparisons made about “friendliness”.. I like to think Americans are friendly, and I certainly don’t see everybody in cafes here in Amsterdam walking away best friends (or even really talking with people outside their group). I don’t think it’s about cafe culture as much as simply having more in common. Customers at a cafe University adjacent will be more social, no doubt. Customers in a down-town store might just want their coffee…

  8. Great post – and comments!

    This was one of the first references I came across to Bryant Simon’s book, and helped whet my appetite to read it. I included your great quote about “zombie cafes” in a blog post I wrote in an effort to compile the various views on coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks I’ve encountered on the web (combined with some of my views on independent coffeehouses).

    In the book, Simon talks about the importance of spontaneous conversations and serendipitous encounters with strangers in a coffeehouse as a key to civic engagement. In your post, you talk about meeting friends and people-watching, but I’m wondering if you might have any insights or experiences to share about the prevalence of spontaneous conversations – among strangers – in European (or Asian) cafes.

    Thanks!

  9. One of the things I noticed in Europe is the prevalence of long communal tables with magazines and newspapers. So if you are alone in the cafe and you are sitting next to someone, you can begin the conversation by asking that person to please hand over the newspaper across the table or to comment on something in the paper. Because you are sitting in close proximity, there is eye contact and making eye contact with a strange is usually a way to start a conversation.

    I have friends who own a restaurant in San Francisco, which happens to have a communal table. They tell me that many people do not like to sit at the communal table. Americans, I guess, like their privacy and don’t want to be seated so close to strangers. They prefer to have their OWN tables. But this is not a general rule. I think in cafes where a lot of students and young people hang out, communal tables, even in the US, are quite popular and do generate spontaneous conversations.

  10. Ah, thanks for the elaboration!

    The two new Starbucks “street level” stores in Seattle – 15th Ave Coffee & Tea and Roy Street Coffee & Tea – each have long communal tables, but no magazines or newspapers. I was at the Roy Street one yesterday; one table had a group of people who were conducting a meeting, the other had two people working on laptops … didn’t see any eye contact between them, but of course, that’s only one data point. It will be interesting to see how much community emerges at / around these community tables.

  11. I don’t care for Americans —- paranoid assholes. Any Middle-Eastern country – even with its wars and despotism- has better socializing. America is a soulless country.