Coffee and tea, and a lah-tay and me

Ann Treneman discovers capitalism on caffeine
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Americans love a good drug but things aren't what they used to be. The Marlboro poster man died of cancer and no one can save nicotine now. Work hours have increased and alcohol appetites decreased. On the West Coast they only drink micro-brews and the only smoke you won't be arrested for is a cigar. But everyone does coffee and we are not talking the lukewarm brown water variety.

America has a new coffee culture but it is one that Jack Kerouac (luminary of the last great caffeinated craze) wouldn't recognise. Something called latte (that's lah-tay) is everywhere. It may sound like a Paul Simon album but is a sort of bastardised, made-in-the-USA cappuccino. The entire country is slurping it in insulated drinking mugs.

Everywhere you look there is a Java drive-thru or a coffee cottage kiosk. Cappuccino is so common that it is actually spelled correctly and if your coffee is getting cold, it's probably a Frappuccino. People really do ask about Yergacheffe beans (that's Ethiopian to you and me) and whether the froth on that latte can be low fat.

All of this because Howard Schwartz went to Italy and had a vision. "It gave me the chills," he told Spirit magazine. "I felt the romance of it all. Then I started walking through one coffee bar after another." Suddenly, he saw an America with a coffee bar on every corner. The diner was dead, the tavern too tacky. Americans needed a "third place" - after home and work - to meet and make a community. That place would be his coffee bar.

In 1989, he lost a million; in 1990, more than that. But the next year sales for his company, Starbucks, shot up 84 per cent and the word exponential does not do justice to subsequent growth. In fact, the company, started by three English Lit students - Starbuck was chief mate in Moby Dick - with a single Seattle store is now almost too successful. They don't call it Howard's Trend for nothing.

Americans like to refer to the "alpha predator" and, in coffee land, Starbucks is it. Capitalism on caffeine is a little crazy. Starbucks calls itself an "experience" and its staff are "partners" (all 17,000 have stock options). Those behind the counter have to train for 25 hours to become a "barista". It has a coffee cookbook, its Seven Pillars of Coffee Brewing Wisdom, a catalogue, a toll-free number and a CD jazz compilation. On Valentine's Day, lovers exchange Starbucks stock.

This summer, the company went international: today Tokyo, tomorrow Singapore. "Just wait until we come to Britain," grinned a barista in Seattle. "We've 900 stores now and the goal is 2,000 by the year 2000." The company says it will be looking at Europe, but it doesn't know when.

It all seems rather addictive. If Marlboro Man were alive, he'd be drinking latte, that's for sure.