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Starbucks, or not

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While not strictly a coffee connoisseur (as yet, but working towards it), I do enjoy a fine cup of java – ideally in the morning, but a good cup after a satisfying dinner is also welcome. Having started on a coffee-discovery journey a year ago, I can now distinguish between arabica and robusta, between various roasts (personally I prefer the ‘full-city’) and am gradually appreciating the nuances of various blends and single origin coffee. But unlike real coffee-nerds, I cannot rattle off subtle characteristics such as acidity, body, complexity, depth, balance and so on.

This post, however, is not about my knowledge of coffee or the lack thereof – it is, as the title suggests, about Starbucks, a global retailer of ubiquitous proportions and purveyors of over-priced, moderately good-quality coffee drinks that bear rather ostentatious names. The green and white with mermaid logo that is invading neighborhoods at an alarming rate of 4-5 new locations a day (or as a critic put it: "there is one opening right now in your basement ") has become almost synonymous with the world’s favorite beverage. But they are usually my last choice when it comes to looking for good coffee. Hence this short rant explaining my hatred of Starbucks. To be less derisive, this is about why I prefer local, ‘mom-and-pop‘ coffee houses to the corporate Starbucks1.

Much of these thoughts came to me early last Saturday morning at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. There I was, twelve hours behind my original schedule and few hundred miles further away from the final destination compared when I started the evening before2, trying to find myself a good morning cup in anticipation of a long day ahead. My choice was limited to either Starbucks or something-they-call-coffee served at McDonalds or Cinnabon. So as it often happens, for the lack of better alterative, I went into Starbucks and ordered the medium latte (yes I know I should have said grande but read on) and in the process of sipping the uninspiring milky concoction that pretended to be an espresso drink, I synthesized the reasons for my anti-Starbucks stance.

The first problem with Starbucks is simply an irrational prejudice against the whole corporate domination aspect and the anti-lemming tendency in me to be against the flow3. Plus, I hate their pretentiousness in naming the coffee-sizes, with the Ventis and Grandes and such (not to mention the ‘Chai-tea lattes!’ – gimme a break) or the bizarre blended drinks they come up with (pomegranate frappuchino?). In fact I make it a point anytime I am forced to use a Starbucks, to order the medium (as opposed to the ‘look I am soo European and pseudo-chicGrande) or small (as opposed to counter-intuitive Tall) sizes. As of yet, I have not dared to order the Venti – I have no wishes to deprive myself of sleep at night.

Secondly, I genuinely believe that most local cafes/coffee-joints will provide a better espresso shot (and hence a better latte, mocha or cappuccino) compared to a Starbucks in the area. I am not sure how much training the workers at Starbucks (they are called baristas or partners) receive on pulling espresso shots or how much staff-turnover happens there; but the best thing you can probably say about a Starbucks’ espresso drink is that they are inconsistent. Only if you are lucky (as I once was in Washington DC) will you get a decent drink. This is unacceptable when espresso-based drinks are supposedly what people go for and pay big bucks at Starbucks.

However, without fail, I have always had good experiences with espresso shots at smaller, independent establishments. Even though these places too have a turnover in staff, majority of the people working there prepare the drink with much more loving care and a personal touch. The folks at one of the local joints I go to, will even do a latte-art for you. (The difference in quality could also be explained by the difference in the espresso blends used in Starbucks and elsewhere.)

(Btw, believe me when I say that pulling the perfect shot is certainly an art by itself. I have had espressos shots from and often used a three thousand dollar original Italian hand-crafted espresso machine replete with copper pipings and all – and there are many variables – from the quality of the water used to the packing of the coffee and of course the quality of the original espresso beans, – that go into that small cup.)

As far as drip coffee goes, I haven’t had much experience, but a few people I talked to (and who really love their gourmet coffee) usually had the same answer – Starbucks coffee is moderately good at best.

Thirdly, the local mom and pop stores carry an aura of local idiosyncrasies that is usually absent in the corporate mandated sameness of Starbucks all over the US. One of the cafes I usually frequent has a really eclectic interior design with old, rickety furniture, including several comfortable couches strewn around, old books for you to read, some amazing photographs on the wall, big windows (if you want to people watch) and best of all, free wifi. I do not feel this casual atmosphere or the funky touch at a Starbucks shop.

Finally, as short side-note, I have always had bad luck with the Starbucks coffee-lids. Usually I attributed this to my own clumsiness, but there does seems to be a real problem with their lid design. For world’s biggest coffee sellers, this is a shame.

Now to be fair to Starbucks, I believe they have done a lot to promote coffee consciousness. In fact, sometime back I remember listening to a NPR story about how the ‘Starbucks culture’ had actually helped independent coffee-shops to prosper and flourish. This post is not meant to totally diss Starbucks and their customers (I have nothing against people who want to spend fortunes on three triple-espressos a day and are too lazy to invest money into a decent, moderately priced grinder and brewer, along with several online options that will give them coffee as good as SB, if not better. Eventually it is a free-market.).

What I am saying is that if you are coffee-addict and cannot do without that latte or mocha in the morning; or if you need the buzz of human activity around you while working on the term-paper on your laptop, check out the independent cafe around the corner, instead of heading towards Starbucks. Chances are that your coffee will be tastier and the atmosphere livelier too. If you are in a small college-town like I am, there are bound to be several such places. And help is at hand if you need to locate an independent coffee-shop near you. Xtine Hanson, a teacher of multi-media skills at the Art Institute of California, started a website called Delocator ( that will find such cafes within certain radii of your zip-code. The web-site is mobile-enabled and now can be used even to find independent book-stores and art-house cinemas in the locality.

Before I end, two interesting Starbucks related stories I noticed recently.

First: Starbucks seems to be losing some regular espresso drinkers due to the long-lines for frappuchinos and other blended drinks (which usually take longer to prepare than espresso drinks or drip coffee) that have been popular recently on account of the heat-wave in parts of US (why people would like to drink dehydrating caffeine in a heat-wave is beyond me though).

Second: a new voting demographics: Starbucks Republicans !!

Related post on making coffee using a French-press here.


1. Under normal circumstances, when I am at home, I try to avoiding coffee shops altogether. I have made a reasonable investment in various coffee machines, from regular drip-brewing to french press to moka-pots. As long as I have a good espresso blend, the last mentioned has provided some of the best espresso shots I have ever had.

2. I was flying from Raleigh-Durham to Rochester via Atlanta.

3. To be fair, there is quite a big anti-Starbucks movement out there as well. Also, I should probably be taking a similar stance against Walmart – but the latter at least is economic on the wallet, which was priceless as a poor graduate student in the early years in the US.

Tags: , , ,

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 7, 2006 at 3:28 am

Posted in Food, Personal, Rants, Trivia

36 Responses

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  1. […] Patrix | Food & Drink What I am saying is that if you are coffee-addict and cannot do without that latte or mocha in the morning; or if you need the buzz of human activity around you while working on the term-paper on your laptop, check out the independent cafe around the corner, instead of heading towards Starbucks. Chances are that your coffee will be tastier and the atmosphere livelier too. […]

  2. An excellent rant!

    I must admit that I am no coffee connoisseur and stick to mostly ‘coffee of the day’. Invariably I have always preferred the independent mom-n-pop stores if I had a choice. One of my favorite haunts in Atlanta (Decatur area) for more than two years was this quaint place called Java Monkey. Now in College Station, I haven’t been to a Starbucks in almost 4-5 months and prefer to stick to Sweet Eugenes’. The ambience is what makes the difference for me.


    August 8, 2006 at 2:49 pm

  3. A question: Have you ever tried the French Roast at Au Bon Pain? If yes, comments? If no, try it.


    August 8, 2006 at 3:01 pm

  4. @Patrix: ‘Quaint’ is the right word … From your posts, I have a feeling that ‘Sweet Eugenes’ is a great place for hanging out – especially their daily nuggets ! (thanx for the DP link btw)

    @Sailesh: We do not have a Au Bon Pain around here – I did have breakfast once there in another city – but did not get the coffee. Will try it next time.


    August 8, 2006 at 3:15 pm

  5. Brilliant Pondit! One of your best posts.

    But I wonder why no one talkes about Dunkin Donuts, I know the Coffee is bad but its damn cheap too. Frankly many times, I have found it better than the Starbucks coffee at school.

    And the business of grande, venti gets to me too! If only they would make decent coffee to go with it such pseudo-elitism…


    August 8, 2006 at 4:41 pm

  6. Okay, I hate starbucks too pretty much. It’s so eminently hateable. But I do want to point out a couple of points for the bucks. Starbucks is one of the very few (only?) food and drinking establishments that offers health insurance to all of its employees (which is rather amazing for the restaurant industry). Additionally the starbucks around DC regularly hires folks for whom normally it would be near impossible to gain employment (ie. folks w/ a criminal record, transgender people).


    August 9, 2006 at 11:22 am

  7. @Confused: Thanx – you are too kind. Actually Dunkin Donuts, Tim Robbins etc sometimes do have good coffee – well depends on the definition of good. Problem is that most of these places, in the name of dark roasts, char the coffeee beans beyond any reasonable flavor and identity while roasting.

    @Sonia: yes – I did know about the health insurance and I commend Starbucks for taking such steps. Anyway, like I said – I have no problems with the existense of SB or people buying coffee from it – I simply stated by own reasons for avoiding it (and I suspect many people agree with me on some or all of the points).


    August 9, 2006 at 11:50 am

  8. I don’t think I agree totally with you on this one. Most of your points are noted and agreed upon. But I guess Starbucks has assumed a cultural status sort of like McDonalds. It has brought coffee (and blended drinks that for some strange reason get classified under coffee) into the everyday lives of people. And while the mom and pop stores may serve a more delightful atmosphere and robust cup, I have noticed a lot of inconsistency when it comes to the coffee there. Not all mom and pop coffee stores serve a good cup of coffee and the stores that you like vary in their coffee. What I mean is starbucks usually provides consistency. I know what I’m getting when I’m going in for a latte. I am sort of addicted to coffee and use a french press and Starbucks beans to brew the most satisfying cup of coffee ever. But when on the move and the addiction kicks in I know I do not have to search far before I can get a perfect latte. I go there for familiarity.


    August 9, 2006 at 12:48 pm

  9. Sonia,

    Why should I drink coffee in a place because it provides health insurance? I know this logic is applied to Walmart too, in reverse of course. The jury is still out on whether it is beneficial to the larger society or not.


    August 9, 2006 at 1:06 pm

  10. @M: Seems like my experience has been completely opposite yours – I have found Starbucks to be quite inconsistent in the quality of their espresso. My experience with independent stores (granted its only been in my own area, upstate NY and DC) has been consistently good.

    And I did agree that SB has been responsible for spreading the coffee culture.

    Good to know a fellow coffee and French-press lover !

    Btw, regarding SB beans – especially their blends – the jury is out on whether they use arabica or robustas – last time I chekced a bag, it simply said: latin american and asian beans. Personally, I get my coffee from this website: CoffeeMaria. I have no financial interest in the company – just plugging them for the service.


    August 9, 2006 at 1:26 pm

  11. @Confused: I dont think Sonia was trying to say that we should go to SB for their policy – but just pointing out that they are among a rare group of employers.


    August 9, 2006 at 1:30 pm

  12. Very well-written post. Here are a few of my questions and observations:

    1. If you’ve had an excellent espresso anywhere in the US, I’d like to hear about it. Even places that use fairly good brands like Illy and Kimbo mostly churn out indifferent espressos. It’s the same story with cappuccinos, they are mostly average at best.

    Having said that, Starbucks espressos are especially excreble. They apparently do use arabica beans (I asked and they told me that they only source one kind of robusta bean, the rest is arabica). But they French roast the hell out of everything, resulting in one of the worst espressos known to man. Unless I’m very caffeine challenged, I would not spend good money on a Starbucks espresso.

    2. What is a medium latte? And what is an espresso drink? Having ordered neither ever, I’m really ignorant. Though what I do know is that Grande is simply large in Italian and Venti is twenty, so if you order a Venti, presumably it comes with 20 ounces of coffee. I can’t even drink 20 ounces of soda in one go!

    3. You made espresso in a moka-pot! How? Technique please. I do happen to own a moka-pot, but I’ve never been able to crank out any espresso from it.

    4. Apparently the Starbucks founder was so impressed by Italian coffee bars that he decided to replicate it in America. Which is what explains the Italian names for drinks and barista and all. And to be fair Starbucks is a vast improvement over the ash-water they call coffee in most American diners.

    However, Starbucks is not a patch on the Italian coffee bar, and even the tiniest neighbourhood coffee bar in the smallest town in Italy will make better coffee than Starbucks. It is impossible to get bad coffee in Italy.


    August 10, 2006 at 1:17 am

  13. Oh, and just wanted to clarify, that I know the moka-pot is supposed to make an espresso, but what it actually churns out is just some very concentrated coffee. It looks and tastes nothing like an espresso from an espresso machine.


    August 10, 2006 at 1:43 am

  14. Tom Hanks’ character in “You’ve Got Mail”:
    “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”


    August 10, 2006 at 2:24 am

  15. @Thalassa: Sigh – I haven’t had the fortune to sit down at an Italian coffee bar (in Italy) – have heard wonderful tales about their coffee.

    Agree with you on the French roasting bit – in fact most regular coffee sellers do that trick and try to convince the customer of the superiority of ‘dark roast’. Thats why I use online

    To answer your questions:

    (1) Since I haven’t had the fortune to be in Italy – I do not have a standard. But the best espresso shots I have had in the US were from this Machine I mentioned, which was located in the laboratory of a group I used to collaborate with (as a graduate student). They used beans purchased from some person in New York City who kind of smuggled it in straight from Italy (at least that was the story). The Machine belonged to the PI of the group – a Swiss dude – who as the story goes, came to US for a post-doc and had coffee at McDonalds once ! This experience left such an emotional scar on him that he used his first salary to buy the Machine. If you follow the link – you can find out more about ‘The Machine’.

    Anyway, in terms of latte (I usually dont drink cappuccino) – if you ever find yourself in these sleepy parts of the country (the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina) – I can point you towards a couple of places with, IMO, excellent espresso. These places get their beans freshly roasted (usually less than a week or two old) locally and have very well trained baristas operating the machines.

    (2) Medium Latte: ‘Medium’ refers to the size (which otherwise would be Grande according to Starbucks terminology) – not sure what it means actually – but since they have three sizes on the board – I mention medium. Turns out that they actually also have something called a ‘short’ size, which is smaller than the ‘Tall’. And yes, Venti does come with 20oz of coffee ! Forget soda, I cant even drink so much water at one go.

    Btw, ‘espresso-drinks’ merely refers to drinks such as lattes, cappuccinos and mochas – that are based on espresso shots + varying amounts of steamed milk and froth – not sure if the term is correct technically – but people seem to use it.

    (3) I don’t know if I am using any secret techniques with the moka-pot. I try to use good quality water – at least filtered – although many online places recommend spring water. The grinding is important – I assume you are using a burr-mill grinder at home – you need a consistent fine grind and make sure not to pack in the coffee (you dont really need to tamp in the coffee here as you do for a machine). Of course, an espresso machine (properly used) will give you the best espresso just because the pressure is much more consistent). Also, with a moka-pot, you have to be careful about burning the coffee if you keep it on the flame for too long – I use a medium to low flame.
    An Italian couple I had met at a party, sweared by the moka-pot as the best method for making espresso.

    A fellow coffee-lover has recently suggested using this: Aeropress for making single espresso shot. Haven’t tried yet.

    Thanks for the long comment and hope you got some answers your questions.


    August 10, 2006 at 7:38 am

  16. Will check out the link.
    Also I drink coffee but do not claim to be an expert or a connoiseur who understands it a lot. Hell I even will drink the instant kind if nothing else is available. So there don’t take anything I say too seroiusly 🙂


    August 10, 2006 at 9:44 am

  17. @M: Moi not a big coffee-geek either – still learning the ropes. You wont believe the fanatical extent to which some aficionados go to !

    And yes, I have often partaken the drivel they serve just before our seminars just to help me get through them without falling into into my neighbours lap 🙂 (I cant sleep sitting straight!)


    August 10, 2006 at 10:01 am

  18. Starbucks IS disappointing. And about a good espresso being an art – i totally agree. And espresso machines are being showcased like art as well. I was in Switzerland recently and kept crossing huge Nespresso showrooms where they had the most beautiful displays of the machines and fancy espresso cups. It was like the Valentino of coffee.


    August 10, 2006 at 11:21 am

  19. Hey Pondit – Does the Moka pot produce crema like an actual espresso machine?

    As someone who was also spoiled by the previously mentioned La Cimbali Junior S1 (which sadly they no longer make – the new model has computer chips to regulate the exact size of each shot), I usually treat coffee as a caffeine delivery device when I get it out, and don’t bother trying to find a decent espresso. However, due to the Starbucks effect, there are now four coffeeshops within three blocks of my apartment, so I may have to recheck the quality of their espresso.

    On a related note, I fixed “The Machine” last week using an O-ring from an eppendorf pipette.

    Also, I wanted to pimp Turkish style as an easy way to make super strong yet smooth coffee at home, besides a grinder, all one needs is an ibrik (a little copper pot).


    August 10, 2006 at 12:45 pm

  20. @Hari: thanks for the quote – I was thinking about it while writing this post – though I did remember all of it.

    @Szerelem: Yup – both the machine and the process is an art.

    @Brian: Alas – the moka-pot does not produce the creama. This Italian dude was trying to explain to me how I could still get something similar through various complicated processes – but I forgot.

    Good to know that useful man-hours are being spent on The Machine. I should have had a shot last weekend !! Thanks for the reminding me of the name – had forgotten it.


    August 10, 2006 at 1:02 pm

  21. M’s comment reminded me, my cousin normally uses a french press and the French Roast (?) from Starbucks (do they have that flavour?) to prepare his morning cuppa, and the first time I drank it, I was totally blown away by it. So I guess their coffee isnt all that bad (atleast from my perspective)!


    August 10, 2006 at 5:26 pm

  22. Bongo, thanks a ton for the elaborate reply. If you’re interested, here’s what each of those terms mean in an Italian coffee bar:

    cafe latte: Simply espresso topped off with hot milk (latte)

    mocha: basically the coffee that your Moka-pot makes. So refers to technique that produces a specific kind of coffee

    Cappuccino: Espresso topped with steamed milk and foam.

    So yes, technically speaking cafe latte and cappuccino are espresso-based drinks, though mocha is not.

    I’m sure your espresso was very good if they were using Italian beans. What brand was it?

    Honestly, good as the moka-pot coffee tastes (and it tastes much better than a lot of standard drip coffee), it is not really an espresso. An espresso is only an espresso if steam passes through the ground coffee and condenses to produce espresso. A moka-post has boiling water passing through the coffee, which makes the coffee slightly bitter and reduces the aroma that’s the hallmark of a true espresso. Again, not running the moka-pot down at all, it does make amazing coffee.

    Also as your friend Brian pointed out, there is no real crema in a moka-pot coffee. You can use a cheat techinque, by taking a bit of the coffee and whipping it with sugar to produce a crema like substance, but true espresso should produce the crema on its own and need neither milk nor sugar.

    And yes, Turkish or Armenian or Greek style coffee is yummy.


    August 10, 2006 at 8:24 pm

  23. @Thalassa: I was aware of the espresso ‘terminology ‘. But as far as I know, Mocha is espresso with chocolate and steamed milk (some places offer whipped cream on top) – thats what it says online, as well.

    @Sailesh: French roast is the degree of roasting – usually it means that the bean has been burnt and charred pretty badly – taking with it most of the flavor – so imagine how good it would be if the roasting was slightly milder (also fresher). As I mentioned before, most supermarket variety coffee does that. I actually discovered this – only when I started ordering online from an independent seller, who roasts the coffee absolutely fresh.


    August 10, 2006 at 8:55 pm

  24. Do you have the link to the seller?


    August 11, 2006 at 12:01 pm

  25. Sailesh: the website is; they roast only after you order and ship within 24 hours. Ground shipping is free for 2lbs or more. I always order the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe – and have liked the Indian Mysore Nuggets and the Antigua Guatemala too.


    August 11, 2006 at 3:52 pm

  26. Actually, that mocha is an American invention. You wouldn’t find it in Italy in the coffee bars, only in places that serve American snack foods such as burgers, etc. I’m guessing that it was invented to make espresso more palatable to Americans with a sweet tooth :).

    Thanks for the website, it looks really good. I’ll check and see if they stock any Italian brands, I’ve been looking for one in particular (which is why I asked what brand of coffee you use for your espresso).


    August 11, 2006 at 5:07 pm

  27. @Thalassa: I use a blend from my local cafe for espressos. The website mostly has single origin coffee.


    August 11, 2006 at 5:10 pm

  28. Thanks for the link, I’ll try out their coffee.


    August 14, 2006 at 12:25 am

  29. I don’t like Starbucks coffee either, its too oily. I like their espresso drinks though, and I really love their chai, especially with eggnog this time of year. Every other chai I have had from mom & pop stores and other chains has been sickenly sweet or whimpy.

    You bring up the point that they are opening tons of new stores every day, and complain that people are having to wait in line for frappuccinos, etc. You don’t think there is a connection between the two… ? Could it be that the reason they open a store on every corner is because they don’t want people to wait in line?

    I know some folks who work for the company, and they love it. They get treated well, they get health insurance, and stock. No mom and pop place can take care of their employees that well. And you are right, if it weren’t for Starbucks, the mom & pop places wouldn’t even exist, or at least they wouldn’t be doing so well.

    I travel a lot and don’t have the luxery of viewing the world from some little college town. Sometimes Starbucks is all there is, and you know what? I don’t have a problem with that. If there was just one Starbucks in your town and they were not a large chain, would you still hate them? What if they made latte art for you, would you still give the same evaluation? Ask yourself these questions. There are too many knee-jerk reactions to anything that comes under the heading of “corporation.” It’s not a rational argument.


    December 20, 2006 at 10:29 am

  30. @Julianne: I did mention that my prejudice against Starbucks was irrational 🙂

    If a local branch of Starbucks made latte-art for me or in some way attempted to blend in with the local environment, I would keep visiting them. Its not that I absolutely ban myself from going there. But so far in my experience, I have yet to be in a Starbucks that does this: be it among the ubiquitous stores in Washington DC or the single store they have in our small college town.

    I admit while traveling frequently, it is tough to avoid them and I don’t because the alternatives at airports and such are worse.

    Last week, I was in San Diego – and for a couple of days I had to go to Starbucks till I asked the concierge at the hotel and found, once again, an excellent local place that made some heavenly espresso.


    December 20, 2006 at 12:06 pm

  31. Nicely worded. Cheers.

    Robert Csar

    February 7, 2007 at 8:02 pm

  32. […] coffee-related posts here and […]

  33. What Robert Csar said.

    Paul Wiggins

    January 24, 2008 at 6:37 pm

  34. @Julianne:
    Some people resent Starbucks’ encroaching business tactics (buying the leases out from under already-successful neighborhood coffee shops, installing locations right across from other cafes and piggy-backing off their traffic, blanketing an area with stores every couple of blocks, etc.). I am one of them. I’m glad they treat their employees decently, but I still choose not to patronize them. That’s entirely rational.

    Pondit — lovely, well-written article. You’re lucky that indie coffee shops actually produce excellent coffee where you live; I haven’t been served a drinkable espresso yet at the cafes near my home in San Diego. Shame, really, because I visit them for that unvarnished, funky, intellectual vibe, and two of them produce incredibly tasty food in-house. I usually just order that, or tea that I don’t have at home.


    May 23, 2008 at 1:25 am

  35. sRVvEH comment4 ,


    May 7, 2009 at 2:23 pm

  36. Espresso coffee is a coffee beverage that is brewed by forcing hot water under pressure or pressurized steam through finely ground roasted coffee.

    Espresso beans

    September 23, 2010 at 11:07 am

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