Drip Grind

It was about halfway through Taylor Clark’s Starbucked that I decided I should read the book inside a Starbucks establishment. Not as some sort of anthropological experiment (though certainly, if material were to present itself …), but because, as part of the minority of American adults that doesn’t drink coffee, I’m just not that familiar with the stores. I had been in them, sure, and understood that Starbucks was a major chain. But the omnipresent, possibly villainous cultural entity Clark was describing didn’t resemble the hazy little dark-green cafes I saw in the back of my mind.

The half of the book I had already read was basically just a biography of a company. Clark begins with a few examples of Starbucks’s ubiquitydid you know there’s a Starbucks at Guantanamo Bay? along the Great Wall of China?and then explains how this situation came to pass. In brief: coffee in America was popular but crappy; some guy from Seattle started driving to Vancouver to buy better beans, then went into business selling the stuff; a housewares salesman from New York named Howard Schultz noticed that a small Seattle outfit was selling huge numbers of his coffeemakers, and got involved with the company; Schultz visited Italy, found the latte, and now there’s a Starbucks on every damn corner in the country.

More fascinating than the early chronology is Clark’s research into Starbucks’s painstaking marketplace maneuverings. Starbucks is well known for its utilization of the “third place” concept, but we get to read about the focus groups where Americans first revealed that they were willing to pay more for their coffeeeven if they were just getting it to goif they were in what felt like a “public living room.” We also get clued in to the thinking behind Starbucks’s unique vernacular (names like “grande Valencia latte” not only lend a patina of sophistication to a product, but also build brand loyalty); we learn that Starbucks deliberately locates stores on the driver’s righthand side as she heads downtown so she won’t have to make a left turn across traffic; we shake our heads at the revelation that, in 2002, Starbucks introduced the vanilla and coconut Creme Frappucino in order “to capitalize on the expected popularity of the color white.”

All of this is the product of able and enthusiastic reporting, though I sometimes wished Clark had better filtered his materialI don’t really care how Ottoman sultans took their coffee. His tone is of similarly mixed effectiveness: Clark carries us along with a friendly, wiseass voice, which sometimes works, but at other times he makes jokes that you half-expect to be followed by a loud “Ba-dum cha!” I took to writing “hit” or “miss” in the margin next to heavy-handed punch lines. (The final score was 12-9 in favor of the hits, but still.)

I read the second half of Starbucked in two different Starbucks stores, drinking a Giant Peach Tazo tea and a mango juice, which were, respectively, terrible and highly acceptable. In one store, I sat at a table designed like a chess board. (“You’re not working! You’re playing a game!”) It was a strange way to absorb Clark’s sweeping exploration of whether Starbucks is destroying the world.

Starbucked grew out of an article Clark wrote for the Portland, Oregon-based Willamette Week, in which he identified “charges” against Starbucks and found the company guilty or not guilty. He does much the same thing in the book, tackling five primary complaints about the chain: 1) Starbucks drives local, independent coffeehouses out of business; 2) Starbucks exploits Third World coffee growers; 3) coffee is bad for you; 4) Starbucks exploits its employees; 5) by destroying cultural diversity, Starbucks is “homogenizing the planet.”

Two of these allegations are dispatched completely. Regarding the dangers of coffee, Clark argues that while caffeine is addictive, “it’s no drug of abuse,” and, despite centuries of rumors to the contrary, there are no health risks associated with moderate (say, three cups a day) consumption. As for the claim that Starbucks destroys independent coffeehouses, it certainly sounds true. But the reality turns out to be exactly the opposite: Clark presents statistics suggesting that when Starbucks moves into a community, it creates a market for coffeehouses that wasn’t there before. Local outlets then become the alternative to the big chain. “Paradoxically,” Clark writes, “the surest way to boost sales at your mom-and-pop cafe may be to have a Starbucks move in next door.”

Things get more complicated when Clark examines the company’s role in the global coffee market. What’s clear is that Latin American coffee farmers have it bad: only about a nickel of your $4 cappuccino goes to the people who grew the beans, and the lifestyles of many coffee farmers reflect the industry’s non-lucrative nature. What’s less clear is what can be done about this, or how Starbucks fits into that picture.

The coffee trade is unhealthy for two reasons, Clark says: because the United States refuses to permit quotas that would prevent surpluses, and because a few behemoth buyers like Nestle purchase large quantities of really bad, really cheap coffee (they cover up the taste with artificial flavors). The best-known proposed fix for these problems is what is called “fair trade,” an arrangement in which consumers willingly pay higher prices in exchange for assurances that their coffee was acquired ethically.

Starbucks hasn’t made much of a commitment to fair trade. But to Clark, this isn’t very damning, because he doesn’t regard fair trade as a viable solution to the coffee problem. Fair trade farmers, he says, get paid a fixed price, so they have no incentive to produce quality coffee”It’s an open secret,” he writes, “that Fair Trade beans have historically been much lower in quality than their unsanctified cousins.” And how many consumers will really pay a higher price for worse coffee? Starbucks, meanwhile, buys high-quality beans on the open market, for which it typically pays a few cents less per pound than the sanctioned fair trade price (last year, it paid more). Clark believes that this approach has the potential to raise living standards for far more farmers than fair trade, which is, essentially, an elaborate charity. “If you want to advance the welfare of farmers and their families,” he concludes, “you’ll have to indulge your taste for high-quality beans as often as possible.”

A couple of caveats should probably be added here. Laura Raynolds, codirector of the Center for Fair and Alternative Trade Studies at Colorado State University, told me that focusing on the price of coffee misses some of the main points of fair trade, such as ensuring that the money from bean sales actually reaches coffee farmers rather than middlemen, and equipping those farmers with information to improve their negotiating positions. (She also objected to the statement that fair trade beans were of low quality.) But all in all, Clark makes a strong case: Starbucks’s indirect relationship with producers, and its less-than-odious purchasing behaviors, at least partly mitigate its culpability for conditions in the coffee market.

By now you may have noticed that Starbucks seems to be getting off the hook. This is not because Clark is shilling for the company; in fact, he takes pains to emphasize that (contrary to its rhetoric) the coffee purveyor has not intended to help anyone. The author’s approach is measured, thoughtful, and fairand I say this because, when Clark discusses Starbucks’s treatment of its own employees, I think he gets it largely wrong.

Starbucks is a perennial presence on Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work For” list, in part because it offers employees who work more than twenty hours a week a low-cost health care plan. But it has also been criticized for paying low wages, assigning terrible schedules, and cutting part-timers’ hours before they hit the threshold for insurance eligibility (only 42 percent of Starbucks’s employees receive its much-heralded insurance plana lower percentage even than Wal-Mart).

Clark explores this debate by talking to Daniel Gross, a Starbucks barista and law student from New York who for years has been pressing his coworkers to join the radical Industrial Workers of the World union. Gross is ridiculous (he doesn’t think cops and security guards should be allowed to join unions, because they have “chosen to betray their class interests”), and makes for an unfortunate spokesman for baristas; Clark also recites Starbucks’s response to would-be organizersthat a union isn’t necessary in such an enlightened companywithout pointing out that every company says this. But eventually, he gets around to the crucial question: Would unionization be appropriate at Starbucks? He tells the story of a Canadian union’s failure to keep some Starbucks stores organized, and concludes that, because being a Starbucks barista is so simple and turnover at the job is so high, this might not be a job where a union makes sense. “You can’t unionize [cheap service jobs] if nobody wants to keep them,” he says.

But doesn’t Clark have this backward? Unions don’t exist just to help people keep desirable jobs; they exist to make jobs more desirable. It may be true, as Clark says, that being a Starbucks barista will never be hugely fulfilling. But the gig could certainly pay morewhen it comes to baristas, there’s no complicated global market to negotiate; Starbucks could just write bigger numbers on its payroll checks. Better compensation, more reasonable hours, or more consistent benefits, all of which a good union could help to bring, might make baristas more inclined to keep their jobs.

At the end of his chapter on labor relations, Clark asks Gross whether he can’t just “move on to something better.” Of course he can. But not everyone can, or will, and at the end of the day, somebody‘s going to be working at Starbucks. It’s not unreasonable to expect such a highly profitable company to permit those people to have more economically dignified lives.

In his closing section, Clark addresses the question of cultural homogenizationthe idea that, by being everywhere, Starbucks is killing the individual character of far-flung communities. This, finally, is where we find out who, precisely, has been “Starbucked.” It turns out that we all have. “Starbucks diminishes the world’s diversity every time it builds a new cafe,” Clark writes. “The company, by its very nature, endangers cultural uniqueness, and this is why I am not a Starbucks customer.”

This brings me back, as you knew it would, to my own experience reading Starbucked in Starbucks. Because, while I certainly had no trouble finding the place, I didn’t get a sense of being overwhelmed by it. In fact, here is what I saw in those two Starbucks locations: People buying coffee. People drinking coffee. People waiting for the restroom. People working on laptops. And, on one occasion, a barista giving a tourist directions to a nearby cafe.

Think about that last one: someone came into a Starbucks looking for directions away from it, and a Starbucks employee was happy to help. Starbucks might be everywhere, and that might be annoying, but it’s not all that fearsomeit’s not, as Clark believes, “strip[ping] the richness and zest from our own lives.” It’s just a coffee shop, and it doesn’t affect people that dramatically. Unless, of course, you work there.