Starbucks : Coffee :: McDonald’s : Hamburgers

[The Stain of America] When you walk in the door, it just clicks. You smell the sweet, brown aroma of fresh roast; you hear the whirr of the grinder and the Clack! Clack! Clack! of the doser; you see the white clouds of steam rising from the machine. And you just know. This is a special place. It’s definitely not a Starbucks.

What brings a café to life? The chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, thinks he knows. Unfortunately, he also thinks the company he helms no longer knows. This is no surprise to anyone but Mr. Schultz. Simultaneous with his company’s coronation as de facto King of the Coffee Hill came its denigration as a mindless giant, its tremendous growth fueled by the combustion of the values for which it was originally lauded. Impassioned baristas were replaced with under-trained “partners” pressing buttons on super-automatics in order to improve throughput. Unique, flavorful roasts were replaced with over-dark-roasted beans in order to deliver a uniform flavor across all the storefronts. Traditional espresso drinks were replaced with hyper-sugared, chocolate-infused, whip-creamed-topped-with-caramel concoctions in order to cater to the American sweet tooth.

What was lost was excellently-pulled shots. What was lost was flavorful, not-sour espresso. What was lost was appreciation for the complexity of coffee on its own. Nowadays, the moniker “Starbucks” is now synonymous with universally bad “corporate coffee.”

What brings a café to life? You might as well ask what brings a hamburger joint to life. I wonder if McDonald’s noticed the passing of its own soul as it blazed the trail Starbucks now treads. I wonder if they cared. They traded their reputation and quality for dominance and dollars, and perhaps that’s a good thing. If they weren’t so bad, how could the independent shops hope to compete? And without them, how would we even know what was good anymore?