The Browser

Hacking Starbucks

Where to learn about the ghetto latte, barista gossip, and Nicole Kidman’s usual.

Starbucks coffee

Perhaps you’ve noticed: The Internet has an obsession with Starbucks. Maybe it’s because the two have grown up together. In 1995, Starbucks had just launched its master plan to become “a third place for people to congregate beyond work or the home,” while the Web had a lot of gray pages with text and “hyperlinks.” Now, the coffee chain has become the new McDonald’s (44 million customers a week), and the Web has become a 24-hour global exercise in collective intelligence gathering. Gourmet coffee culture and Internet culture have fed off each other, and Starbucks in particular has become a punching bag for the indie spirit that pervades the Web. So I wanted to discover who has the upper hand: Does Starbucks dominate us with its convenient locations and potent caffeine, or do we, thanks to the Web, ultimately call the shots?

Exhibit A in the online cheekiness and wariness toward Starbucks is an old monument: the Starbucks Oracle, which went online in 2002. You enter a drink, the oracle spits out a profile. Here’s the response to my regular order, a tall coffee:

Personality type: LameYou’re a simple person with modest tastes and a reasonable lifestyle. In other words, you’re boring. Going to Starbucks makes you feel sophisticated; you’d like to be snooty and order an espresso but aren’t sure if you’re ready for that level of excitement. … Everyone who thinks America’s Funniest Home Videos is a great show drinks tall coffee.

Sadly accurate. Then I entered Vin Diesel’s drink order: decaf triple nonfat espresso.

Personality type: FreakNo person of sound mind would go to an EXPENSIVE COFFEE SHOP to get a drink WITHOUT CAFFEINE. Your hobbies include going to ski resorts in the summer and flushing $5 bills down the toilet. You are a menace to society.

How do I know Vin’s drink order? Why, Starbucks Gossip, of course. The blog is run by Jim Romenesko, who also runs the popular journalism blog that bears his name. Starbucks Gossip has the tagline “Monitoring America’s favorite drug dealer,” and it’s the Alexandria of Starbucks knowledge, with both baristas and customers frequenting the message boards. Every so often, Romenesko will ask Starbucks employees to weigh in on what celebrities have been in their stores. I’ll leave you to pull out your favorite US Weekly tidbits, but this entry from “Brooklyn Barista” deserves special mention:

Nicole Kidman would get a grande cup of just nonfat milk foam. Yeah…just foam. She would eat it with a spoon. Hugh Jackman gets grande soy cappuccinos. Toby [sic] Maguire gets a doppio and he kinda assembles the drink himself at the bar with some stuff that he carries around in his pocket. He’s actually pretty creepy.

Based on this evidence, it would seem that Spider-Man has stepped into the extra hot center of the “ghetto latte” debate. The e-mail that started it all had been languishing in Romenekso’s inbox until a slow day in September of 2006:

Is it fair/right for a customer to order what we, at my store, call a “ghetto-latte”? The “ghetto-latte” is ordering any size Iced Americano, with no water and half ice (This lady’s drink is an Iced Venti, no water, half ice, Americano). She then takes the drink and goes to the condiments bar and adds her own half and half.

She and her boy toy came in the other day and both ordered a Venti and Grande ghetto-latte. We just happened to not have the half and half out at the condiment bar. When she ordered the drink, I then immediately said, “and ma’am what kind of dairy would you like?” She then said, “Oh I’ll add it myself thank you.” But I had to let her know we didn’t have any out at the very moment. She asked for half and half of course.

What followed were hundreds of comments, pro and con; an op-ed in the Seattle Times; an article in the New York Times; and so on. Is the ghetto latte racist? (The more P.C. might call it a bootleg latte.) Is it stealing? Or sticking it to the man? Are employees obliged to tirelessly refill the half-and-half, in order to observe the Starbucks mandate of “Legendary Service”? The debate demonstrates why Starbucks is such a magnet for invective: It’s a perfect target for our anti-corporate righteousness, because it’s something we all share. Douglas Coupland made the point long ago in Generation X: that the mockery and analysis of corporate sameness is an activity that can unite us.

The ghetto latte joins a pantheon of hallowed Starbucks hacks. Tim Harford of Slate contributed a classic to the genre, “Starbucks Economics: Solving the Mystery of the Short Cappuccino,” where he revealed that the best-tasting cappuccino, the short cappuccino, is not on the menu. When Starbucks introduced its store locator, someone devised an effective delocator, which directs you toward independent cafes. The site Consumerist recently explained how to get a Tazo Chai Latte at half the price.

And then there are the more high-concept hacks. In 2006, digital media artist Cory Arcangel computed the Starbucks center of gravity—i.e., “the exact place you can stand in Manhattan and be closest to ALL Starbucks”—to be somewhere around Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. This summer, comedian Mark Malkoff visited all 171 Starbucks outlets in Manhattan in one day and made a funny video out of it. (Key detail: At one point, he has to bribe a barista $80 for a piece of pound cake.) The earnest Winter deserves mention here, too—he’s a one-named lad determined to visit every Starbucks in the world.

Romenesko, reached on the phone at an independent coffee shop in Evanston, Ill., speculates that some of the Starbucks stunts are fueled by dreams of becoming the next Jared Fogle, the guy who lost weight by eating exclusively at Subway and went on to become a pitchman for the chain. My theory is that the stunts testify to the totality of Starbucks: It’s become a fixture, a sort of cultural Mount Rushmore that’s found throughout movies (coming soon: Tom Hanks in How Starbucks Saved My Life), sitcoms (see this viral Curb Your Enthusiasm clip), and popular culture. All Starbucks jokes, attacks, and references merely swell the black hole of Starbucks.

The store also seems to engender grandiose statements like that one. Ron Rosenbaum put academic Stanley Fish through the blender on Slatefor an egregious example of coffee-shop extrapolation. But lots of sharp, egghead analysis of the store can be found on the Web. The best comes from the so-called Professor Latte at Temple University: a man named Bryant Simon who’s working on a book that promises to be the definitive American Studies take on Starbucks. In an 18-minute lecture on YouTube, Simon breaks down the Starbucks appeal into three categories: functional (caffeine is addictive), emotional (Starbucks is self-gifting), and the “expressive” category. We buy Starbucks to show others that we are “someone who can afford luxury.” Simon also has a great take on the oft-mocked “half-decaf no whip” language. The Starbucks lingo capitalizes on an America filled with people who are “desperate for belonging,” he says, and Starbucks is in the business of creating a community of belonging. That’s why the baristas ask us for our names, and also why we should question that small swell of pride we feel when we correctly order our venti soy no water 20 pump chai.

True: That drink was actually purchased and consumed in a Starbucks. The baristas do keep track of weird orders, and sometimes they write about the most obscene ones on the LiveJournal Barista’s community:

the gross drink of the night at my store: a triple grande pomegrante fruit juice frap. ew ew ewww. the guy drank it like it was the best thing on earth. there was a little left over in the blender so my coworker and i tried it and i couldn’t even swallow it - it was so acidic it burned my mouth. ew.

The journal entries are what you would expect: venting about annoying customers, venting about psychotic managers, wondering if the new breakfast sandwiches are being rolled out in Ohio, and discussion of performance reviews in bureaucratic language (“my spectacular performance was what HELD ME BACK from SS, because she didn’t want to lose my use to the shift team”). Reading several hundred entries feels like working at a Starbucks for a day. What surprised me was the lack of cynicism about the place. Many of the baristas do think of themselves as “partners” (as employees are called) and speak with pride of their stores. They tend to defend Starbucks against the legions of Starbucks-haters out there. They also seem to enjoy the benefits of the almost medieval guild that they belong to, which allows them to move between cities with ease and fall back on their espresso skills if a new job doesn’t pan out.

So, what did I learn after all my browsing into various Starbucks subcultures? To paraphrase an idea of professor Simon, the chain is the matrix of coffee. You either define yourself as part of the Starbucks community or as someone “who doesn’t do Starbucks.” But, repeatedly, the key to all-around Starbucks happiness turned out to be simple: If you do buy coffee there, leave a tip.