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Posts Tagged ‘Starbucks’

When I moved back to Oxford to spend a year earning my master’s degree, I shared a wee house in East Oxford with three English girls.

One of my new housemates, Lizzie, worked at Starbucks. In fact, the first time I met her, to introduce myself and pick up my house key, was at Starbucks on the High Street in central Oxford. I sipped nervously at a raspberry smoothie, studying the blue-eyed girl across from me, hoping she wouldn’t regret opening her home to an unknown American she’d met via Facebook.

Before long, Lizzie transferred to a new Starbucks shop in Headington, up the hill from our house. Despite my preference for independent cafes, I dropped by occasionally when she was on shift. I am not a coffee drinker, and I don’t particularly care for Starbucks teas (my usual drink of choice there is a chai latte). But in early December, I was hankering for a peppermint hot chocolate, so I stopped in and ordered one.

red cup with journal

The girl at the counter, one of Lizzie’s co-workers, stared at me in confusion. “We don’t have any peppermint,” she said.

I frowned. Surely she was mistaken? Even across the Atlantic, the red cups and red aprons had come out in November, and the board behind her touted various holiday drinks. And I knew from my own time as a barista that many cafes keep peppermint syrup on hand year-round. No peppermint? At all?

I shrugged. Perhaps they were out. “I’d like a regular hot chocolate, then.”

A few minutes later, Lizzie came over to the table where I sat, sipping my non-minty drink, and I told her they’d better order some peppermint, since the holidays were approaching quickly.

She stared at me with the same look her co-worker had worn.

“No peppermint? She’s mad! We must have a whole case of it in the back room!”

After another second or two, we both burst out laughing.

The next week, when I dropped by and ordered a minty hot chocolate, Lizzie stared at me with a straight face, her blue eyes dancing. “We don’t have any peppermint,” she said.

As her co-worker (a different one this time) stared at her as though she’d gone mad, we both cracked up again.

It’s been five years, but every time I order a peppermint hot chocolate, I think of Lizzie, and smile.

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Confession: I’ve sort of developed a Starbucks habit.

As a former barista at a beloved independent (now defunct), I once swore up and down that Starbucks was the enemy. I refused to order anything, out of principle, when my family stopped there on our way out of town. I turned my nose up at all their products (I still don’t love their teas), and I was basically quite pompous and self-righteous about the whole thing.

This began to change when I lived in Oxford. My housemate Lizzie worked at Starbucks, and would occasionally phone down to the house on her long shifts, begging one of us to come up and see her. I’d hop on my green bike, glad for a break from schoolwork, and pedal and pant my way up steep Headington Hill, then breeze up a few blocks to her Starbucks and order a peppermint hot chocolate or a chai latte. Sometimes I perched at a table across from the register, so she could talk to me; sometimes I’d make myself less conspicuous, curling up in a soft green chair and reading or writing, and Lizzie would toss me a remark or two as she wiped tables nearby. I still spent more time and money at my other beloved Oxford cafes, but I didn’t mind Starbucks quite so much any more.

There are a couple of great indie cafes near my current workplace – I love Thinking Cup and Boston Common Coffee House, and I make frequent visits for lunch or other treats. But there’s a Starbucks right in my building, and on mornings when I’ve had too little sleep and not enough caffeine, or when the temperature in my office is colder than the rainy day outside, or when I just need a treat to warm me and cheer me, I head downstairs and order a tall chai latte. I watch the baristas joke with each other and chat with their customers; I sneak glances at my fellow customers, observe what they’re wearing and reading, wonder about their lives. And then I walk back up to my office with a warm cup of creamy chai goodness.

I’m still a staunch supporter of all things indie, and I’ll keep buying books at the Booksmith and yarn at the Windsor Button and produce at the farmer’s market. But I’m shelving my pride and admitting that, as far as chai lattes and convenience are concerned, there’s also room for Starbucks in my life.

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Mike Cope posted this morning on the new Starbucks in the ACU library. I am technologically challenged and I don’t know how to insert hyperlinks, but his blog (www.preachermike.com) is the first one in the list of blogs on the left sidebar. There are nearly 40 comments (thus far), mostly from people who are absolute Starbucks addicts – and many of them extol the virtues of Starbucks in the areas of coffee drinks, atmosphere, etc. (though no one admits to liking the prices).

I tried to comment three times, but the site wouldn’t let me. So get ready: here comes a Katie rant.

Starbucks does NOT have the most innovative coffee-drink menu, the best coffee (they burn it – according to a friend of mine who worked there after working at 2 different independents), nor the best atmosphere to hang out. Local coffee shops had a corner on the ambience, the forum for local artists and musicians to flourish, the laid-back community, the safe place for people of all ages AND the wonderful drinks before Starbucks ever came on the scene. (For one thing, the coffee house originated in Prague…not even in America!)

No, I don’t drink coffee. Love the smell, but can’t stand the taste. (Interestingly, Mike shares my view.) So I suppose I can’t vouch for the quality of Starbucks lattes and cups of joe over others. But I CAN vouch for the lack of quality in Starbucks chai, hot chocolate, tea and Italian sodas as compared to those you can get at independent places. The Starbucks stuff is bland. And their chai tastes weird.

Yes, I worked at an independent for two years. The Ground Floor Coffee House in Midland, Texas. Server of at least four varieties of roasted beans shipped from an independent roaster in Lubbock, Texas, and maker/purveyor of the best granitas, Italian sodas (96 different flavors – and you could combine 2 or more to create your own!), rich Ghirardelli hot chocolate, steamers, chai, and build-your-own sandwiches I’ve ever had. We had three shelves of tea – some 52 blends of black, green, red (rooibos), herbal and even white – and four shelves of flavor syrups, which could go into any of our hot or cold drinks. For the non-hot-tea drinkers, we always had a pitcher of Lipton iced under the counter. As for the sandwiches, we bought the ingredients fresh at least once a week, and there’s honestly no substitute for turkey with mustard, provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato on a homemade jalapeno-cheddar roll from Tony’s Mexican Bakery, made fresh, sliced in half and microwaved for 22 seconds. Can Starbucks give you that?

Not to mention Friday nights filled with the mostly acoustic and very pleasing LIVE sounds of local (but talented!) bands. We did have the radio or CDs playing most of the time…but it was the stuff we liked, not some piped-in corporate mix. Norah Jones, Caedmon’s Call, HEM, Guster, Enya, Sinatra and all kinds of jazz recordings. And brightly painted walls (we painted them ourselves!) hung with vibrant and thought-provoking art by local artists, including Rachel, one of our baristas; the owner’s husband, Jeff; and a tall lanky regular named Ryan who bought more cups of hot tea than anyone I’ve ever known.

And another thing: We knew our regulars. We didn’t scrawl their names on the sides of their cups, but we knew them. Steve, for example, would come in a few times a week, always wearing sunglasses (I was shocked one day to see that he had beautiful deep brown eyes), for his 16-oz soy latte with three shots of espresso (they came with two) and two packets of Sugar in the Raw. I’d start making his drink when he walked in the door. I’d do the same for Tim Baker, who came in between 2:00 and 3:00 every afternoon for a 16-oz skinny latte (made with skim milk) with a shot of sugar-free hazelnut syrup. One man, another Steve, liked to empty his sugar packets into the cup before we put the coffee in. David Eiler, known affectionately as “Happy Face” or “Smiley,” bought a $1.75 16-oz espresso every day and always slid three dollars across the counter, telling me, “Keep the change.” Aaron, a very unusual biker who had mild cerebral palsy, a love for Jesus and an absolute heart of gold, would hobble in (he hurt his leg in a bike wreck two years ago) and ask for his special mug (it had his name on the bottom), drinking the drip coffee we didn’t sell. At closing time he would help me take out the trash, then walk me to my car.

The Ground Floor closed its doors on April 30, 2005. We had an all-night GF-style party complete with an espresso-drinking contest, live music for some five hours, floods of customers from age 15 to well into their fifties, and nearly everyone who’d worked there for the past couple of years, all of us rotating behind-the-counter duty. We all loved the tactile and sensory process of making drinks and restocking supplies and even smoothing your hand across a counter to make sure the espresso grounds were all gone. None of us wanted to leave. I was one of the first, and I finally headed home at nearly 4 a.m. Aaron walked me to my car, and I sobbed all the way there.

Now there’s no place except Starbucks to get a cup of coffee in Midland. Fortunately, there are several local joints here in Abilene: Mezamiz, the Bean Counter, Third Rock Creamery & Coffee. Thank heaven. In Oxford, there was G&D’s – an Oxford-original ice cream shop that also did bagel sandwiches and coffee, and there is now QI (Quite Interesting), which sells wonderful tea and scrumptious ginger cake. Totally local. And last summer in Hawaii, as Scott frequently reminds me, I found another kindred coffee house: Volcano Joe’s, across the street from the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii. Mango smoothies, great chai, chilled-out atmosphere and way cool T-shirts. Whenever the team missed the big blue whale of a van, they knew it was a safe bet I’d taken it and driven to Volcano Joe’s.

These places are packed with atmosphere – organic, funky, sometimes rough-edged, homegrown, original local flavor. They’re not as slick as Starbucks, but they sure feel more like home than it will EVER feel. Support your local coffee house, for goodness’ sake. These places are some of the few remaining bastions of rich, relaxed, family-friendly local flavor amid all the franchise fast-food restaurants and national department stores.

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