Starbucked, By Taylor Clark
The perfect accompaniment to a double-shot skinny caramel-syrup latte
Thursday 28 February 2008
In 1998, reports Taylor Clark in this entertaining and intriguing book, two university researchers performed a chemical analysis of the waters of Boston harbour, in Massachusetts. The results were unexpected: the harbour contained caffeine. Bostonians, like Americans elsewhere, drink such huge amounts of coffee that caffeine had worked its way into the sewage, and thence into the ocean itself.
It's a useful symbol of the coffee frenzy that has swept from America to the wider world, and of the ubiquity of the brand that has driven it: Starbucks. The company that began life in Seattle in the early 1970s as a single shop has morphed into a global phenomenon. In 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in the US. Today, there are 24,000. Globally, Starbucks is a presence in 37 countries. It even has a branch in Guantanamo Bay.
What has made Starbucks such a success? One answer is the drive of its first chief executive, Howard Schultz, who likes to speak in syrupy terms about his company being a "mission" but whose corporate ruthlessness is well attested. Psychology is important, too. In an increasingly fractured world, says Clark, the idea of the coffee house is seductive – comfy armchairs, companionship, luxury products. You can buy into the concept of community even as the company you pay helps to destroy the real thing.
This paradox best exemplifies both the book, and Starbucks itself. Clark details the charges against the chain: its refusal to allow workers to unionise, the low wages its growers receive, its targeting of rivals. He tells entertaining stories about resistance: protesters pacified with free lattes; the $600,000 the company pays a year for Schultz's protection. But some of his conclusions are surprising.
But he also suggests that Starbucks has helped local coffee shops to survive by turning more people on to good coffee. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of independent coffee houses in the US increased by more than 40 per cent. Even so, Clark won't drink at Starbucks: he can't buy into their project of homogenising the planet. On the other hand, if he finds himself stuck at an airport... Like the world as a whole, Clark is not always sure what to think about Starbucks. His ambivalence translates into a wry balance, and makes for a surprisingly gripping read.
Paul Kingsnorth's 'Real England: The Battle Against the Bland' is published in April by Portobello
Sceptre, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 iOS 8 apps and features: eight iPhone settings you need to look at after you install the update
- 2 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 3 'F*ck it, I quit': KTVA reporter Charlo Greene quits live on air in spectacular fashion
- 4 Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
- 5 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
Cilla, episode 2, ITV, review: Sheridan Smith continues to shine as the young singer
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, ITV, review: There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning
Foo Fighters: Live 2015 tour dates announced for Sonic Highways
Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned PR disaster
Top Gear to launch in France after Jeremy Clarkson banned from driving on roads
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God