There are a lot of books out there about coffee, coffee culture and cafes. I’ve spent years working through them but there’s always so much more to read. I was recently recommended ‘Everything but the coffee’ by Bryant Simon. It’s a book which explores not only the Starbucks company, but how it ingrained itself into the lives of the American population. At the beginning of the book Simon talks about the ‘Starbucks moment’ in history, the point at which we started to see the company logo appear everywhere, not just in the stores, but online, in TV programs and films – it became a symbol of popular culture. It then goes on to explore the rise and fall of the ‘Starbucks moment’ and the changes that took place in the company that were related to this. The book also moves through different themes exploring how part of the appeal for consumers its predictability, how it might be considered a third place, how the brand fits in to modern retail therapy, how music fit into the business and issues of sustainability. There were many areas of the book that were useful to my research, a couple are explored here, but in general this book would be of interest to those with an interest in coffee shops and coffee cultures. Whether you like Starbucks or not, its been a very important influencer in the global market for coffee and coffee shops.
The book explores how the growth of the company in many ways has little to with just the coffee. Some of its success has been around the style and status that was attributed to visiting its stores, and in particular carrying around the branded Starbucks cup, it became a popular form of everyday luxury. The same can be said for other coffee shop chains too. Visiting Starbucks also became about predictability, where the high-priced cup of coffee also provided the price of admission to a place that was reliably clean and would be filled with similar people.
I was particularly interested in the section which talks about Starbucks as a ‘third place’ as many cafés have been called. The term was coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. Third places are those separate from work and home, where people can spend time, relax and communicate – typically these are considered to be cafes, coffee shops bookstores, etc. I’ve been exploring the third place concept in some of my recent research into the role of cafes in urban spaces. While for many the coffee shop is the quintessential third space, in reality, for many people the coffee shops are also a place of work, some times an alternative office, and in these cases can’t really be designated as somewhere neutral from work. But that’s another point I’ll go into another time.
The book explores how the CEO of Starbucks tried to highlight how their coffee shops were places of creating community, conversation, connections and debate – ‘third places’. ‘We’re not in the commodity business. We’ve created a third place…almost everywhere we open a store we add value to the community. Our stores become an instant gathering space, a third place, that draws people together’. (Quoted on page 83). As is highlighted, this offers a very rosy picture of what Starbucks provides, for many people the stores don’t offer real connections to people as they dash in and out for their to-go coffee, or sit in isolation in one of the stores, or sit and work, but not necessarily a place to sit and meet people from their neighbourhood.
‘Different kinds of people definitely gather at the coffee stores and sometimes do connect, but more often they are there hiding out from the stresses of their private lives or banging away at the laptop fully engrossed by the own world and no one else’s. Rarely (though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen every once in a while) do these people doing different things actually talk and exchange ideas, but talk and ideas are crucial to the making of community, the coffee house tradition and third places (page 94).
The book explores the different elements of a third place and the extent Starbucks can really be considered one. I’ve explored the extent coffee shops can be considered ‘spaces of community’ in a recent project and it very much depends on the location of the store as well as the way it operates. But as Simon highlights, ‘under Starbucks reign, the coffee house has become something to consume more than an actual public space. You rent out space for work or a meeting or pay for a chair for twenty minutes of relaxation, or maybe you use it as a place to show off your good taste’ (p.118), but in reality, it is an ‘illusion of community’.
There was also another really relevant chapter for my work on sustainability in the coffee shop industry. The book highlights how it is not only the waste from paper cups that creates sustainability issues – there’s a much longer list from napkins, bags, stirrers, small trays for carrying drinks., plus all the plastic. While highlighting that the Grounds for Coffee program gives away coffee grounds for free (for use in gardens etc as compost), one way the company tries to be more sustainable, it discusses the various ways in which the company could perhaps do more – compostable cups, or those with a higher percentage of post-consumer waste.
A lot of the ideas that are explored in the book would equally have traction with how the company has developed in other markets too, so its not just for readers who are interested in the US context. Given Starbucks’ global imprint, the issues discussed here arguably may apply in may different locations around the world. Whether you’re a fan of Starbucks or not, the company has made a huge impact on the coffee and coffee shop industry on a global scale, and this book is provides many interesting insights into the company and its operations.