Starbucks Lifestyle: A Poetic Reflection
10 Sep, 2012 - Luke Irwin
“It’s just coffee,” we baristas said. Not a big deal. But it was never just coffee; it was human beings clustered around the coffee: their emotions, perceptions, fears, and loves like so much artillery. It pounded the careful facade of stability our espresso-scented, coruscant steel Galley of Efficiency and Comfort suggested. The ideal of the Third Place is a castle in the clouds built on the premise that we can derive our humanity from an economic exchange as simple as buying coffee. But it is humans who constantly threaten to make the exchange something more; it is never the exchange that makes us ourselves. Starbucks has difficulty making these distinctions.
Readers from Corporate will object: the human factor is precisely what gives Starbucks its charm. Look at all the happy baristas. But when the human factor is something purchased, it loses the greater part of its integrity and becomes just as affected as my Brunello Cucinelli paratrooper trousers. I refuse to believe it is possible to pay people to exude genuine human feeling unless they first believe in what they are doing. The money is secondary to a kind of faith commitment. Much depends on creating an ethical system exclusive to the company. They call that system a lifestyle. Once established, the company needs to force feed the lifestyle to its employees. Starbucks is especially good (or at least persistent) at this repulsive aspect of corporate pedagogy. We had group sessions where management encouraged us to share our feelings about serving coffee and communicating hospitality. It was strange how condescending Corporate could be when it sponsored these events.
Even more bizarre was the strict moral framework imposed on the weird marriage of elevated sales and satisfied customer reviews. According to Corporate, it was unethical for baristas to believe that any kind of ethics should apply to customer behavior; moreover, Starbucks had to be the same kind of third place everywhere even as it tolerated everything. The lifestyle was one-size-fits-all, but it claimed to be all sizes. Often the customer happiness-or-bust ethos was separated from sales as if it were somehow more important to the corporation that these ideals existed regardless of financial success. We were expected to be fervent believers. Fortunately, most baristas sensed the silliness or saw through it. But a few people didn’t and converted; they were all on the far end of extroversion. I hope they got baptized in a vat of eggnog latte.
So the Starbucks lifestyle was its own fundamentalism. Its central article: Customers are always right. Our mission was to affirm their gluttony and ignorance, their boredom and complaints, their narcissism, their anger, hysteria, nose picking, and violence. Affirm their love, their joy, their kindness, integrity, graciousness, honor, and nobility. It’s the Third Place: where customers pay money to people who pretend to understand them when they act like children and pretend that Starbucks is a pleasant, tolerant, and virtuous place. Or, and this is the terrifying part, it’s a place to pay for the pursuit of a life that goes no deeper than going around and being only physically present for transactions of various magnitude.
At Starbucks I encountered the people. I saw a lot of men in suits. I watched families of obese people, who had just been through the drive-thru at Krispy-Kreme order venti frappucinos with extra whip. I watched women wield handbags by Milly, Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Prada, Balenciaga, VBH, Nancy Gonzalez, Michael Kors, Marni, Coach, Louis Vuitton, et al. My picture was taken. I saw rats at four in the morning crawling on the wet curbside in pale orange streetlight. I was flirted with and cursed, but the majority of the time I was politely ignored. Don the green apron, and you make yourself a talking vending machine. This is why most baristas conceive of their customers not as the other to be served but as the herd to be processed. At Starbucks the herd and I worked hard to remember and forget that we were human beings in a transaction made more efficient the less humanity was involved. It made the operation of the Third Place a kind of mediocre charnel house for the soul.
 E.g., the customer reviews had something like “satisfied,” “very satisfied,” or “exceedingly satisfied” printed on them, which I supposed could have been followed by “Sitting on a Golden Yacht with Heidi Klum in my Lap Satisfied. “ Except it wasn’t. And our manager told us that Starbucks, i.e. corporate, was only concerned with “exceedingly satisfied.” I have never experienced “exceedingly satisfied” in my life, and, given the longevity of the Rolling Stones’ hit single Satisfaction, most people have not even experienced regular “satisfied.”