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The Starbucks Borg Evolves

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Much of my adult life has been spent in coffeehouses. And given that along the way I've lived for at least two years in each of five states other than the one I was born and raised in, I've logged enough varied café time to claim an honorary although worthless PhD on the subject.

My approach to coffeehouses has morphed over time to that of the quietly observant snob. I like to be recognized by the baristas so long as I don't need to chat it up, but I much prefer anonymity. I drink espresso — a "straight shot" is my favorite way to order. If the crema on top is gone when I get it, so am I. I tip well. Excessively, really. I desire a straight shot in this age to be a flat two bucks. A cent north of $2.30 is a rip-off. $2.15 is average. To drink a shot, you should take a quick sip to taste, give yourself a second or two to swallow and gauge, then toss the shot down in one gulp. Give yourself a few minutes, then drink a bunch of water. And after that, sit back, put on the blinders, and get something done.

As an adoptive Seattleite, I acknowledge that much of the world thinks Starbucks is our baseline style. In actuality, Starbucks is airport coffee for most of us. Starbucks is coffee you resort to when you're in a strange place and hoping for an oasis of better-than-diner coffee. When I lived in Mexico for a month (Cuernavaca — a mid-sized, nothing-special city of 500,000 south of Mexico City), the one Starbucks in that city was a welcomed oasis where I shamelessly wore my expatriate jersey on a daily basis. But a Starbucks here in Seattle is Touristville. The original one across from the Pike Place Market is a newbie landmark that visitors always get a kick out of seeing. There's one in my neighborhood and every other imaginable neighborhood; they employ a ton of people; they were a killer app long ago over-merchandised that is now largely passé. So what does a massive corporation built on a model of franchises strictly designed and obsessively branded do when they need a mongo makeover? They overspend on furnishings and steal ideas that, mashed up, look like a toothless offspring of Pottery Barn and a sexless version of Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" series.

Hence, the Roy Street Coffee & Tea café that opened today on Capitol Hill. It joins the nearby four-month-old 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea café as the second "Inspired by Starbucks" coffeehouse. Don't let the names fool you. The only thing there that's "inspired by Starbucks" is the soullessness and utter disdain for the surrounding neighborhood. So if you've been waiting for me to really sharpen up the teeth and unleash on a review, here's some sugar. These dumps get an appalled F rating.

The Roy Street space really needs to be seen to fully gauge the overdone horror of it all. It's huge. You could fit three or four decent small cafés into the space they've chosen, basically across the street from a beloved neighborhood café (Joe Bar) that's typically filled with a neighborhood melting pot that includes students from the Cornish School for the Arts down the block. Roy Street actually feels like three or four really poorly organized cafés inside. The furnishings of those cafés include a few huger-than-usable tables that probably cost as much as a new Prius, insane Restoration Hardware-quality overstated doodads everywhere, and scattered orange-velvet-covered chairs that look like they're on loan from a Lady Gaga video set.

They have four bathrooms (all of which require a keyless code) and an utterly insane bank of sinks outside of the bathrooms. I guess some overpaid designer would prefer to openly verify whether the people that work there wash their hands after taking a dump rather than keep that detail appropriately private. You can imagine all the rest — dark wood everywhere ready to hide thousands of coffee stains but meant to keep the place from ever getting truly cleaned, micro spot lighting that probably will make it all feel like a gallery when sunlight's not plentiful (as if that's a problem in Seattle), garish murals and an utterly out-of-place entrance deco wall sculpture and cats and dogs sleeping together and utter Goldman Sachs-like disregard for taste. If Roy Street Coffee & Tea were a rock tour, it would be U2's ZooTV. If it were a drink, it would be a Long Island Iced Tea with Bacardi 151. If it were a porn star, it would be skinny Jenna Jameson. If it were a car, it would be a hybrid Escalade. If it were a chef, it would be Wolfgang Puck. In other words — yucky without even a hint of self-awareness.

Already at 9:30 a.m. on the first day, there were a handful of the questionably non-homeless cast throughout the 3,600 square feet of grossly overdone ickiness, focused on their laptops. All PCs, by the way. None of them looked up as I walked around marvelling at the tacky overstatement everywhere. So they were either Starbucks spies or completely uncurious morons. And as I passed by the bathrooms and looked at the handful of purposely positioned flyers stuck up on the community boards (no pushpins, people, only a smattering of magnets… bring massive rolls of duct tape if you're looking to advertise there), I got hit with the corporate boilerplate about "green building" materials or whatever sort of low-quality enviro-vodka they're dumping in the karmic punchbowl meant to get the crowd lubed up. In short, Starbucks' cynicism knows no bounds.

The moral of this review is that places like this always fail, but not until they seduce some of the unaware, all the while trying to stick a fork to the independents in every area that remains unassaulted by the prior Starbucks stabs at killing the cool. And the larger point is a warning to America: This is what Starbucks has planned for you. Poorly cloaked corporate greed meant to seduce by duping you into thinking it was created to mirror the neighborhood being taken over. At least the old Starbucks model was clear — put a store on every street corner that could possibly sustain it and openly bleed the community of its inherent personality. The new model is far scarier and stupider.  Don't buy it, America. You'll just be encouraging Starbucks to ruin more of the country with this sort of tasteless dreck if you do so.

Oh, I almost forgot. The coffee? It's Starbucks. 'Nuff said.

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About E. Magnuson

  • unimpressed

    A well-constructed article that encapsulates the paranoia and attitude of the cooler-than-thou boring American. As flat and predictable a critique as the author sees the subject matter.

  • Regular Joe

    Amen to that. Best yardstick of a coffee joint is to order the regular caff no cream or sugar. If it sucks best bet is the rest of their menu sucks!

  • Ruvy

    I love Starbucks like a bride loves boils. In Israel, we drink coffee, not overburned garbage, and we eat fresh pastries, not stale trash. The idiots who tried to sell Starbucks learned that some years ago.

    I’ve heard of a new one in Israel, and if I feel I have money to throw away, I may take the bus to Jerusalem and find out where the new place (if it is indeed) is. If I get to Tel Aviv (where I figure the idiots to open up) before HizbAllah blows up the place, I’ll write a review….