Recently, Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, wrote a memo that got leaked to the press. It outlined all the ways his company was losing its mojo and, by golly, he was right.
Starbucks has blown it.
The stores don't smell like fresh ground coffee anymore, because now they get it pre-packed from some factory. And the baristas don't make the espresso themselves they press the button, and here's your soulless coffee, ma'am. And by the way: What happened to all the comfy chairs? Is it me, or are those cupcakes looking crusty? Why does everyone always screw shut the milk container? It's there to pour out milk, right? So why do we have to keep unscrewing it? Calling Howard! Grrrr!
You know how sometimes a passing remark can have an unduly large impact on your life? (Like the time my friend told me my college boyfriend was so wonderful that I stayed with him another three years, even though my friend, I later learned, had just been saying that to be nice.) That's what the Schultz memo was like. It changed the way I saw things with my own eyes.
I spent the week after reading it just loathing Starbucks me and the rest of hipster America. Gleefully I noticed that the bathroom at the Starbucks nearest me had no coat hook. The toilet paper was off its roller. The soap dispenser was actually lying on the floor. Poof! Just like that, Starbucks became as depressing as McDonald's. "You deserve a break today," said I to myself. "Leave."
So I did. And then …
I had no place else to go.
No place but home or work, that is. But like an estimated 30 million Americans, according to a study by the marketing firm Yankelovich, I wanted to be in what's now called a "third place." A place where I could hang out, be part of the stream of life and (this is very important for those of us who work at home) read without falling asleep.
Long ago say, 15 years back our "third place" choices were pretty slim. There was the library, where you couldn't talk. The diner, where you had to tip. Bars required drinking and gyms, workouts both exhausting. Of course there was always the town square, where young lovers promenaded while old men fed pigeons. But those were all in Italy. America just didn't have a gathering spot, except for the mall. Gag me with an Aunt Annie's pretzel.
Then along came Starbucks, and suddenly we had the kind of public life we hadn't seen since the death of the ol' general store. People lingered, mingled. They lingled.
With this cafe culture even this somewhat homogenized, corporate cafe culture came a truly new way of life. Now there was a public place to meet, chat, study, work and kill time between other places. To have that kind of a sanctuary, where the rent is paid with but a pricey cup of coffee, made me feel well off. As opposed to killing time in any of the fast food chains, which made me feel poor.
So not to worry, Mr. Schultz. You have given us all an extra living room and we're not about to move out. Bring back the coffee smell (and clean up the johns), and Starbucks will remain the place America goes to lingle.