Sunday, July 20, 2008

Grinding to a Halt? What’s Brewing?

Like almost every American adult (and a few wired kids), I drink Starbucks coffee. Not because it’s the best coffee out there—I don’t believe that it is—but because it’s always an arm’s length away. We’re talking convenience, folks.

Need a hot java? Starbucks is there. Want a pound of dark roasted beans ground up for home brewing? Find the ‘bucks near you. Even if you just want the latest Sheryl Crow CD, guess where you can go? Functional, there-when-you-need-it, convenience: It’s the American way. And, the caffeine can never be too close. When you need the jolt, you need it NOW, right?

There’s a Starbucks in the strip mall on the corner. If that doesn’t work, there’s one across the street from that one on the corner. You can even see the cross-the-street one while standing in line at the corner one. Wave at the other barista, kids! Hellooooo!

Yes, it’s ridiculous.

So, why should it have surprised anyone when Starbucks announced it would be closing 600 of its stores? We’re lousy with Starbucks. You can’t throw a Starbucks without hitting another Starbucks—even if that did make any sense.

But isn’t there enough coffee to go around anyway? What the hell did we drink before all those Starbucks? Did we ever drink coffee? Well, maybe we did, but most Americans never drank lattes or espressos. We had a dirty cup of Sanka from Denny’s or that swill from McDonald’s. Does anyone remember “instant coffee?” It’s almost offensive now. And was there even such a thing as a “Frappuccino” before Starbucks? I believe they made that up.

Those people are inventors of food and language! Like McDonald’s. Who ever heard of a McNugget before those dudes?

And I can tell you this—before Starbucks, I thought drinks only came in small, medium and large; you know, like tank tops and sweatpants. But now, you’ve got, “tall” (which is small), “grande” (that’s medium) and “venti” (which really should have been called, “enormo”—that’s a kooky name everyone would have understood). Come to think of it, they should let me name things. That’d be my job. The Namer. Cool. I’m writing that down on my résumé: “The Namer.”

Starbucks created its own vernacular, with its venti sized half-pump, double-shot, half-caf, macchiatos. Say what? What ever happened to the cup-a-joe? If I was going to open a café and name my drinks, I would have called them, “cup-of-yodel-de-doo in sizes wee, chunky, or giganto.” Crazy fun names. See, I can name things as good as them. Hello, franchise!

Speaking of fun, here’s a fun trick you can try yourself: Go to a Starbucks and ask for a small cup of coffee. Watch and listen. The heavily-pierced kid behind the counter will look at you like you’re a crazy person talking an alien language. They’ll say something smirky and annoying like, “Do you mean a tall drip?”

You look right back at them, okay? And squint like Dirty Harry, and say, “No siree, pin cushion kid. I meant what I said—gimme a small cup of coffee.”

When they see you’re serious and unwilling to look away, they’ll admit it. They know just what you want. It’s fun. It’s like playing chicken. Try it out and let me know if it works as well for you as it does for me. One warning—from that point forward, when you go back to that Starbucks, they’ll know EXACTLY who you are: troublemaker. Of course, if that’s uncomfortable, you could just switch to the other Starbucks across the street. Then again, they may be closing that one. Hmmmm....

Now, I must say it, since you may see me at Starbucks ordering it: I’m a fan of the triple grande soy lattes. Hypocritical, you say? Perhaps. But, in my defense I can only say this: I like what I like. And those things, I like. It may have taken me a while to figure out what to call them, and even longer to realize there was such a thing as “soy milk.” But now I know my drink. By the way, how do you milk a soy? Do beans have udders? I guess I’m still confused.

My problem is, at four bucks a pop, I can’t afford those soy lattes very often, even though I now know how to pronounce them and what size a grande is. It’s sad, because I’ve figured out the Starbucks-to-English size conversion. I’ve even managed to learn how to order without laughing. Just when they start closing ‘em down!

But, with the economy in the crapper, I now just order a cup of coffee. Seems like most folks are just getting plain old coffee now, too—the sorts of drinks missing the “achino” and “achiato” at the end.

And, even though it’s a bit sad that they’re closing down a few of these Starbucks, I get it. Less money in the coffee-coffer means fewer coffee shops. And maybe people are tired of converting their language for the sake of those who are also taking their money.

When is convenience too convenient? Apparently when we stop giving funny names to our expensive coffee drinks and just go back to the small, hot, cup of joe. Maybe someday soon, when the economy is back on track and we’re feeling frisky again, Starbucks will open more stores, come up with more ridiculous names, and we’ll be waving at, what will then be, the two or three Starbucks in the same mall.

When that happens, I’ll have you over to my new alternative café and you can order my signature chunky, yodel-de-doo, with soy milk. Then again, I won’t laugh if you just ask for a hot cup of joe—small, medium, or large. Don’t worry, there won’t be Sanka or McSwill. Just coffee.

But don’t ask me for a macchiato. I have no idea what those are.
© 2008, Herb Williams-Dalgart