This is probably going to make me sound like David Horowitz or something but my blood couldn’t help boiling a bit as I was reading the tripe over at

Now, Delocater is some art-project-cum-anti-Starbucks website originating from some folks at San Francisco Art Institute (disclaimer: my alma mater, though I didn’t actually graduate). I guess it just went live over the last week or so, has been featured in Boing Boing, listed at Blogdex, got net folks all excited, et al, ad nauseum.

Anyway, this is more artist statement than art project (the photos of their show at the campus gallery certainly don’t inspire), which is usually never a good thing. And what a doozy of a statement it is.

Original it ain’t though. Basically, via the homogenized 10,000 worldwide stores of Starbucks, the individualism, independent thinking, and even democracy embodied by your local non-corporate cafe, is under attack. Change the retail environment to books and the bad guy to Borders and the argument remains the same. Even, as Adam Greenfield pointed out a few months ago, change the wares to furniture and the evil corporation to Ikea, those anti-WTO types sing the same rhetorical song of “assault,” “attack,” and “unchecked agression.” Big huge stores or in the case of Starbucks, many small ones, generally all with the same look and feel, staffed by workers who have received more than a modicum of training and at least act if not believe that the customer is king, is somehow the root of all that’s evil about capitalist society these days.

The standardization of this spatial, social, and physical experience [of Starbucks’ stores] is hostile to the historical culture of the café and is dangerous, ultimately, to democratic principles.

That’s from the Delocater about page. Yeah, right. But the part that bugged me particularly was this bit:

Social interaction is even considered. All employees receive the exact same training for product handling, customer service, and store management, creating a cog-like work force that can be placed anywhere within the system of stores. The regulation of employees and store architecture both set a precedent for customer behavior, all unvarying, compliance-driven, and ultimately, non-social. [my emphasis]

All employees receive the exact same training…. It’s about fucking time! It actually sounds a lot like Japan, and while the manual-abiding “cog-like workforce” of Japan can be rightfully derided as a bit sterile, cold, and lacking in creativity, when it comes to retail, I’ll take it any day of the week over the laissez faire attitude that seems to pervade much of American retail. And let’s face it, American retail has by and large the worst customer service of any developed country on the planet. It sucks. You’ve got a few well-touted shining examples like Nordstroms and such, but the vast majority of companies, large or small, seem to have little regard for properly training their employees, for instilling the value (and profitability, I might add) of good customer service, and in the end, for the customers themselves. Those holy independent cafes, belying their folksy Mom and Pop exterior, seem to have never even heard of customer service.

So, forgive me if I prefer the khaki-panted, efficient, and somewhat perfunctory service I get from your average Starbucks worker to the I-did-just-roll-out-of-bed, I’m going to make your latte while I talk to my co-worker about her date last night, and of course I’m going to smirk when you don’t drop your small change into the jar with the obnoxious TIP JAR scrawled over it service from your average Something Java independent cafe worker.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the piercings or the tats or the pasta-rasta hair or the “Fist Me” t-shirts or the lavender triangle pins or whatever other accoutrement these folks feel might be necessary to proclaim their allegiance to independent-dom, but if they feel that these stylings or the cozy environs of their non-corporate establishment somehow give them a free pass to opt out of respecting me the customer, the person who’s ultimately paying their wage, then they shouldn’t expect me to be crying after they get quashed by those big bad corporate giants.

Obviously the brush is thick with tar here, certainly in San Francisco where I spent 14 years there are plenty of independent exceptions to the above, and indeed I rarely ever went to Starbucks. Actually my preferred shop of choice was Peets, I always kind of assumed they were independent, you know having started in Berkeley in the 60’s and all that, but I guess I was wrong, I mean if you feel like you’ve got a good thing going and you want to expand your business and customers come and soon you’ve got stores thriving all over the Bay Area, then not only are you not “independent” anymore, you’re evil. Who knew that all those years I was patronizing not a coffee and tea establishment but a PARIAH! says that “Cafés are vital social outposts that have historically provided subjective, social, local, and at times, irrational interaction, inspiration, and nourishment to artists, hipsters, musicians, activists, intellectuals, radicals, and others alike.” Alright, if that’s your target audience, go for it. But what about the folks who’d rather buy decent coffee beans rather than Folgers? Folks who want decent coffee and fairly decent prices. Or the folks who would rather have a business coffee chat with some Cesaria Evora piped in overhead instead of Monster Magnet? Folks who’d like to sit on proper sturdy furniture not found at the sidewalk sale down the street? You know, customers? Where do they go? Seems like they go somewhere else. And it seems like Starbucks and Peets et al. are catering to them, and more importantly, respecting them. That doesn’t seem like unchecked agression or an assault to me. Seems like business to me.

UPDATE (April 8, 2005): Mark Hegge of vudeja has added his thoughts.


15 Responses to The unchecked rhetorical agression of the anti-Starbucks et al. crowd

  1. Stuart Mudie says:

    “Let’s face it, American retail has by and large the worst customer service of any developed country on the planet”.

    Have you ever been to France, Kurt? Here, surliness when faced with the general public has been taken to a whole new level.

    In the main, I like it that people retain their individual identity when they pull on a corporate uniform, but every now and then I just wish they would remember who, as you say, is paying their wage.

    Michel de Guilhermier has an interesting post on his blog about how the default French response when dealing with customer service is to be rude and aggressive –

    If you can’t read French, I have a post on my own blog about one of my many “fun” experiences dealing with the French and their peculiar notion that the customer is always wrong, unless proven otherwise –

  2. Stuart Mudie says:

    The link to Michel de Guilhermier’s blog seems to have been truncated.

    Here is it again, split over two lines.

  3. mhegge says:

    Remember how Dr. Evil and his henchmen “seized upon the opportunity to invest in a small Seattle-based coffee company”. Seems people took that a bit too seriously. MuhahaMuha! MuHA! MuMUMUhamuha!

  4. wayne says:

    Amen Kurt. Living in SF I’ve seen a lot of this anti-Starbucks crap over the years.

    First off – these people who hate Starbucks so much are usually coffee drinkers and I wonder if any coffee drinker really has any right to be so high and mighty. “Fair trade” or not, it seems that coffee as a product is not wonderful for the poor countries where it is grown. At the core of the situation is the fact that it is a crop that can’t be eaten but is grown in countries with hungry people. And since most of the major coffee countries are these poor nations, the coffee industry can play them off each other fairly easily. Hating Starbucks will not change this fact. And I’m sure these people, being coffee addicts will look the other way if the find themselves in a mom and pop cafe that doesn’t have “fair trade” coffee. I’d be much more impressed if these people -quit- coffee altogether and drank herbal tea at these indie cafes.

    The other problem with the Starbucks hatred is their sentimental notion of a cafe. Besides Seattle, SF and a handful of other cities and college towns, 15 years ago there weren’t these cozy indie cafes they speak of in most places. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, a big city and there weren’t that many. In fact in the olde days it was impossible to get anything more than a cup of brown shit coffee in 95% of the US. For most of the country Starbucks offers a decent, if generic cafe where there was none before. And while I don’t drink coffee, I’ve been told that their coffee is actually pretty good. Oh and I hear they give their -part-time- workers health care. Pretty evil stuff.

    Finally – Starbucks as a target is so tired and played out. It’s literally been 10 years of this. There’s a lot of bad shit in the world. It’s sad that people would spend many hours of their lives to fighting Starbucks. Seems like it is time to gaze up from the navel and confront a big world of actual evil.

  5. Jason says:

    I’m torn on this.

    On one hand, I can understand their point, even if it does have a few too many rhetorical flourishes. Indianapolis isn’t exactly known for great independant cafes, but there was a chain here called The Abbey. Great coffee, locations all over town (6 of them or so?), and really great in fostering the artist/intellectual/whatever crowd but also drew professionals and the like (depending on their location).

    Then Starbucks hit town and they went down to one location, their original. Even there they were forced out and had to move to a location half the size. Was it because their service was bad? hardly. Was it because they “piped monster magnet”? nope. Usually jazz, trip hop, pretty good background music. Why was it? because Starbucks came into every part of town they were in and just seemed to draw better – bigger name, trendy because it was “from Seattle”. Crap like that.

    But then, I like Starbucks too. They’re convenient, located everywhere you look, and make decent (though not spectacular) coffee. And I like that htey give their part time employees health care and other benefits. Oooooh evil! So I’m torn. I don’t like what they do to the small independants, especially the truly good ones. But I like how they treat their employees. Much better than other national chains like Wal-Mart.

    Anyway, interesting post.

  6. james says:

    i’ve always hated starbucks. but then i grew up in seattle. i remember when there was but just one starbucks and it only sold coffee beans. we called it ‘starbucks’.

    for me, it’s all less about capitalism and more about seattle. or rather about how seattle follows/precedes me.

    i can’t seem to shirk the fucking place.

  7. james says:

    i do appreciate though they way starbucks has built archipelago of smoke free environments the world over. tokyo would be a whole lot less cool without the chance to sit down and take second hand smoke free break.

  8. james says:

    and this too, from metafilter:

    its true. starbucks staff never bothers you. never bugs you. never asks you to move on. you can do you thing and that is that.

  9. Quinlan says:

    I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where the first Starbucks was opened to university students protesting outside. It was treated like a sweat shop, and among the coop crowd it was basically a crime to set foot inside. I admit I was kind of caught into that at the time, as Madison has more than a dozen excellent independent cafes with friendly staff. (Even one that is cooperatively owned.) But in Madison, Starbucks didn’t seem to have much negative impact on any of the immensely popular independent cares. When I left five years ago they were all still open and doing fine. A university student body of more than 40,000 supports a lot of cafes.

    I used to work for Kinkos Copy Shop, which is like Starbucks in their business technique. They intentionally open more branches than the community can support, and suffocate the small businesses. After some small businesses have folded, they close down the excess shops and reduce to a maintainable level. That is pretty ruthless, but you can’t really rail too loudly against capitalism without sounding like a total hypocrite. (We live and breathe it, like it or not.)

    In Japan another issue comes into play. Starbucks is the only non-smoking café that I know of, and the only place in the whole country that I’ve found with decaf. (My wife is breast feeding our son, and if she drinks caffeine he won’t sleep at night.)

    Starbucks coffee is actually really good. They have dozens of varieties, and my personal favorites are two types of Indonesian blends: “Royal Java” and “Komodo Dragon”. You can only buy them at the Shinjuku Starbucks under the west exit Bic Camera in Tokyo, but they’re worth trying. Of course the best coffee I know of is from an independent roaster based in my hometown: Ancora Coffee Roasters. If you’re in the States you can order from them online: Their Ancora Del Oro is by far the best coffee I have ever had. Unfortunately, they don’t ship abroad so I settle for what there is here.

  10. Gary says:

    What planet are you on man? Are you kidding me?

    There is NO WAY service is the US is worse than service in the UK. I want to see some kind of contest, a bad-service tournament. So far we have the French, the British and the Americans vying for the prestigious title of Crappiest Service in the World – any other particpants?

  11. tokyogoat says:

    service is Oz is reasonable. they’re a friendly bunch down there.

  12. neil says:

    I just got back from a trip to Paris and Bangkok. Service in Paris, though snooty at times, which was to be expected, still outshined most service in the US. At least they have a clue what it is they are serving.
    Now thailand, they know service.
    And let me state for the record I’m on your side Kurt. I’ll take Starbucks’ soulless blend of stores any day over the alternative.

  13. Congratulations for the web.
    I’m photographer and I lived some months in Japan. Thanks for give me some good memories, right now I need it 😉

  14. nils says:

    Put me down as one of those who greatly appreciates the smoke-free oasis in the city, and as an amateur coffee roaster I still can’t match their quality. The staff is always pleasant, and often genuinely friendly, e.g. the recent afternoon when we were feeding our baby in *$ and the water in our thermos was too hot, my wife asked for some ice but they brought over a whole tray to cool the bottle. They do little things like that without being standard Japanese robo-employees, and it increases the value of my experience, expecially when I’m sitting down just to relax for a few minutes. I do that elsewhere and invariably someone sits down next to me and starts puffing away. (This is not meant as a blanket condemnation of you courteous smokers. I love you and thank you.) And finally, the big armchairs are perfectly-sized for me, I wanna steal one.

  15. Adamu says:

    IMHO, service is not the issue here. You shouldn’t bother going to either independent OR huge corporate coffee shops. Both are full of annoying yuppies/counterculture types who think they are the shit, and, more importantly, it costs $3 plus per cup! Just make it at home and bring it in a mug if you have to. And if your workplace doesn’t provide free coffee you need to unionize.

    The Washington Post has a good article ( about how much Starbucks can add up if you get it every day. What a waste!

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