In Search Of...the first cup of Starbucks

Seattle's iconic brew shares its name with a humble town in Washington State. David Orkin drinks in the atmosphere

The small town of Starbuck in Washington State sounded a likely contender as the birthplace of the global coffee empire. So it was a surprise to see the simple sign "Starbuck: pop 170" as I drove up. Where were the billboards announcing worldwide business connections, the advertisements for a coffee museum?

The small town of Starbuck in Washington State sounded a likely contender as the birthplace of the global coffee empire. So it was a surprise to see the simple sign "Starbuck: pop 170" as I drove up. Where were the billboards announcing worldwide business connections, the advertisements for a coffee museum?

The Starbuck Café and Saloon in the town's old mercantile store looked as if it had been closed for some time. Huwe's Café was the only place serving coffee. They don't do Starbucks lattés here, but 85 cents (45p) will buy you a cup of Farmer Bros best. The Café is run by Darrel and Betty Huwe, who were delighted to talk about the town. It was, they said, named after General W H Starbuck, an early railroad financier. For years it thrived as an important part of the railway network, but it declined with the locomotive - even the church fell into disuse and was dismantled in 1930. Many residents packed up and moved 35 miles away to Walla Walla - some taking their buildings with them. Today, they told me, there's a relatively new community church on Main and the village's city hall is housed in what was the Bank of Starbuck - the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. But there is no connection with the coffee company that shares the town's name. Indeed, they said, the nearest Starbucks is all the way over in Walla Walla, a town famous for its sweet onions.

I drove on past Walla Walla, Othello, Moses Lake, Ephrata and Wenatchee to Seattle. Here I learned that in 1971 Starbucks opened in the city's famous Pike Place Market. Rather than being a café, Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spices was actually a coffee roasting facility. It was started by Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegel and Jerry Baldwin, and was inspired by a similar business in Berkeley, California. It continued as a modest enterprise until 1982 when Howard Schultz joined the small team and persuaded the company to start supplying coffee to fine restaurants and espresso cafés. The following year, he travelled to Italy, where he became enthused by Milan's espresso bars, and returned eager to test the coffee bar concept in Seattle.

Schultz duly opened Il Giornale in 1985 in the city's Columbia Center (the building is now called the Bank of America Tower and still houses a Starbucks). Two years, later Il Giornale acquired Starbucks' assets and changed the company's name to Starbucks Corporation. Shortly afterwards the first Starbucks outlet to sell cups of coffee opened at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Spring Street. The same year, the first non-US Starbucks opened not a million miles from Seattle - just across the border in Canada's Vancouver. In 1995, the first Starbucks outside North America opened in Tokyo, and in May 1998 Starbucks arrived in the UK, having acquired Seattle Coffee Company.

So if the name Starbucks did not come from a town in Washington, what was its origin? Had I read more than the first few pages of Herman Melville's 1851 classic Moby Dick I would have known the answer. For the novel is apparently a favourite of one of the company's founders and within the book is a character called Starbuck...

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