The False Promise of Community at a Starbucks

CoffeeAccording to the fine print of our rules we're allowed to use gift cards, even if they are to non-local restaurants and stores. On Friday I ordered my first Starbucks Grande' coffee since we started our year using a gift card for volunteering at school. I almost asked for a large, a sure sign that my detox from faux Starbucks Italian culture was almost complete. I also noticed this week that Starbucks will be closing 600 stores. I had no idea our change in consumption patterns would have such a large impact. It gives some indication of just how much we used to frequent the chain.

I'm not a Starbucks hater but I am feeling a little duped. I used to be a true believer in the Starbucks party line summed up here:

"Starbucks is all about connections,” says president and chief executive officer Orin Smith...“In the U.S. particularly, there is a poverty of intimacy. People today are wired to their telephones, computers, email, and consumed by long hours and career pressures. We like to call Starbucks the between home and work. A place to talk, read, and renew the spirit. And as we expand overseas, we’re finding that this need for community amid the quickening pace of our lives has relevance around the world."

I think Mr. Smith actually does a wonderful job of summing up the longings of our world; loss of intimacy, longing for a third place, hungry for connection and community. Amen brother. But Starbucks jumped the shark and nuked the fridge on this concept a long time ago. Some would say it was when they started offering egg McMuffins/breakfast sandwiches. Their founder points to high automated espresso machines that break that "connection" with your Barista.

I would say it was when the drive thru window operators started greeting me with a "Would you be interested in a Shamrock Shake errrr Pumpkin Spice Latte today." Does anyone ever respond to this question with the affirmative; "Yes give me the overpriced gimmick drink of the week." Do they think I don't know that I'm being sold on the item with the highest profit margin, when all I want is a cup of coffee. A general rule of human contact is that when the first words out of your fellow community members mouth is a sales pitch, it is officially not about human connections and a poverty of intimacy. It's about manipulation and being objectified for certain ends. My need for intimacy in their matrix of things is a need to be leveraged and exploited.

Yeah I long for community connections. Yeah I long for a third place. I know the poverty of intimacy. But it turns out Starbucks is a mirage in a desert of commodified human connections, a master in the art of false intimacy. They make good coffee. Can't they just call that good.

At the end of the day it's not up to some multi-national corporation to address these grand issues in a local community. Each local community needs to do the hard work of creating those places and those connections. If you're in the West Valley of Spokane, stop by the Rocket Bakery and I think you'll see a more authentic version of a community's third place.

Wait, there is a Starbucks barista hailing me down, asking me if I would like a petite vanilla scone with my rant. Sorry dude, my gift card is tapped. Talk to me in six months.