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Coffee grumps

Slate earned my undying affection a couple of years ago by turning that old daily-paper log of crap, "news you can use," into a cup of steaming, comparably economical goodness by publishing a column about Starbucks' equivalent of the crazy first wife in the attic: the "short" -- bumped from the menu long ago with the arrival of the ostentatious "venti." Order a short cappuccino, the writer advised, and you'll get a stronger cup for less money. True! It was revolutionary in a small-r way.

Slate returns to the bottomless Starbucks well this week for a contra-conventional-wisdom piece about how the caffeine mega-chain in fact has built and sustains a coffee economy, and most cups rise with the latte. A hard piece of evidence -- "Just over the five-year period from 2000 to 2005—long after Starbucks supposedly obliterated indie cafes—the number of mom and pops grew 40 percent, from 9,800 to nearly 14,000 coffeehouses" -- is bolstered locally by Mark Jones's anecdotal observation in his Olmos Perk review that SA is enjoying a coffee-shop boomlet.

Slate theorizes that the reason Starbucks often benefits local shops is that it doesn't enjoy the key competitive advantage (lower prices; larger inventory) that makes Wal-Mart a  mom-n-pop serial killer. When Starbucks is too crowded or not within easy striking distance (although their tendency to pop up overnight has caused this writer to theorize that the Starbucks already exist in the universe in an infinite number, and as the universe expands, we inevitably come into contact with them, geography and economy notwithstanding) customers in need of a fix will try the local shop -- where they may discover lower prices and higher quality.

On a related note, I want to suggest that the Starbucks empire has grown weak in its foundation because it has violated the cardinal chain rule: consistency. The bitter Charbucks backlash began long ago, but assuming you like, or at least tolerate, your coffee blunt and overbearing, Starbucks delivered. Until about a year-and-a-half ago locally, which is when I first was handed a truly sucky double-short latte at the Starbucks in Alamo Heights. It was an isolated enough incident to stand out in my mind at the time -- but the problem was crystallized when a new location opened at McCullough and I-35. It was slammed from the moment it turned on the big green sign -- a catastrophic success Rumsfeld might call it. The store was so busy from the get-go that there was little time to train the staff -- a few quick learners saved the place from utter disaster, but it wasn't until about a month ago that you could expect any consistency in the coffee drinks. (The staff is friendly, though -- hi, staff!). Even then, last week I was handed a latte that tasted as if it had been brewed from previously used, burned beans. Yum -- charred coffee water. Today, I picked one up at the Quarry Starbucks that was cool enough to dip a baby's toe in. When I brought it back to the barista, he immediately asked if it was cold -- because he fucking knew it was when he handed it to me. If I have to call someone a barista, for chrissakes, I think they should give a damn if the coffee's hot. It's all in the training and management, and Starbucks has either grown too big to manage itself effectively, or too rich to care. Or maybe it's cut its much-lauded employee benefits. Local Starbucks employees, let us know what's going on out there! Are they training you? Are they taking care of you?  Are you, too, tired of smiling at short-tempered (not to mention short) editors who want their double-short non-fat latte, like, yesterday?



Posted by Elaine Wolff on 1/18/2008
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