Serious Eats: Drinks
Barista in the Wild, Part 5: The Future of the Coffee Shop
I can sit around and jive talk about coffee for hours, but many others don't necessarily want to know more about it--instead, they're drawn to the experience of drinking it, socializing with friends, talking about the previous night, peeling off layers of a cranberry walnut muffin, until we reach that coffee buzz which makes surviving the upcoming day all that much more plausible. No wonder so many successful coffee shops around the country create living rooms for their customers with dark wooden floors, light colored walls, communal tables, and the endless aroma of freshly ground beans. We're drawn to comfort in the aroma of brewing, the barista's choice of music, and the milk-infused espresso beverages which bring us back to Italy, France, and more locally, Seattle.
The original location of Starbucks only has some of these desired elements. Located in Pike Place Market in Seattle, the store opened in 1971 as a National Landmark offering only whole bean coffee, tea, and spices. Eventually they offered prepared beverages, but to this day, they do not sell pastries or sandwiches. If I owned the store, I wouldn't either--Pike Place Market's stands beat the food offerings at Starbucks any day. The baristas perform on an elevated stage, with a real La Marzocco (nice!). You don't come here to sit. You come as a tourist, to be entertained, and maybe to pick up a bag of special edition beans which are only sold in this location.
Enter the new store, a two-block walk away at First and Pike. It might be the largest Starbucks I've ever seen—or at least it appeared to be since it was 9 a.m. and not in New York City. As the first LEED-certified store in the company, the intention is to pave the way for future locations.
In typical down-home coffee shop style, they offer drinks "to stay." No prices on the menu board means you should come with at least five dollars and cross your fingers. Employees encourage a cup of Clover-crafted coffee, made with small batch beans ground to order and miraculously prepared to enhance the flavor profile. If it wasn't for the walls plastered in mugs and 1 lb. coffee bags, I wouldn't even know I was at a Starbucks. What's the future of the coffee shop, then? Starbucks thinks it will bring us back to nature, giving us the appearance we're in a lazy Northeastern town while deceiving us with LED lighting and specialty hand driers.
My experience at Starbucks HQ included two full days of coffee knowledge, both within Starbucks and in the industry as a whole. While I didn't learn any trade secrets or hidden ingredients, what I found was people who know, love, and live coffee, and have been employed with the company for five years and more. Starbucks will still remain a place I visit while traveling when there's nothing else, where I can reliably get a cup of semi-decent coffee without feeling like I'm supporting a company that beats their employees and scams on small Latin American coffee farmers.
As an education enthusiast, I have one suggestion for Starbucks and their new locations: start offering public cuppings. (In my dreams, discontinuing 20 ounce espresso beverages would also be on the list.) Many local independent shops thrive on the community developed by these informal sessions where the subject is solely tasting coffee--and coming up with the unique adjectives to describe how it hits your palate. If Starbucks wants to enhance their reputation and convince the world they know coffee, then they need to educate the public and offer "coffee college" externally. I want to live in a world where people know the origins of their cup, choose their supplier wisely, and still treat the cup like an experience they want to come back to every morning.