the coffee counter culture

As an entrepreneur I often find myself with out an office.  Working from home makes me the envy of many, but when you are there all day every day – believe me when I tell you- the thrill is gone.  Between that and a travel schedule that, at times, puts me on a first name basis with the TSA people, I am often finding myself booting up in unusual places.  As a techno-geeky kind of guy, I start breaking out in hives if I don’t check my email every 15 minutes.  I’ve been thinking about a 12 step program to ween me off my iPhone- my current ‘crack-berry’ of choice…shutterstock_204880054

One of the advantages of a flexible work environment is the ability to observe humanity, in all it’s splendor – or at times lack there of. I find it to be just the right amount of distraction through the work day.  Instead of objectifying a secretary, the world becomes my cube mate – and I don’t have to have any of them on the payroll.

Coffee houses are the best for obvious reasons; Wi-fi, diversity of clientele, easy access to sustenance and proximity to a bathroom – not in order of importance.  Some of these places, Starbucks being the most predominant, have leveraged the success of their business plan on, well, loitering.  People like me who count on the ability to walk into a place they have never been, in a strange town, and know they can find a clean table, decent cup of coffee and a power outlet with relative ease.  Although the people in each location is different, it usually represents an accurate slice of whatever the demographic of the are happens to be.  (If you want to feel really old – go to a Starbucks near a college campus sometime…). Their other target is kids – having disposable income and no where else to hang out .  With parental funds, they flock in groups large and small to pay big dollars each day for ability to order a pretentious beverage, hang out and drink their yuppie-chino of choice.

These places aren’t just selling your favorite over-caffeinated frogurt – they are selling cool.  No. more than that… They are selling pseudo-sophistication. The allure of the ‘in crowd’, the prestige of pretension, the ability to order a grown up beverage with out being carded.  Think about it; even as the price of gas is skyrocketing, we are willing if not eager, to pay more for a single cup of coffee than a gallon of gas.  Clearly, bean filtered water is NOT all we’re paying for! We are buying our way on to the winning team, and no matter your age or I.Q., your id and ego both want to play for the winning team.

Which is why placing your order becomes an important step on the ladder of acceptance. It’s your first backpacking trip through Europe, your first road trip in your own car, the first time you remember it’s trash day with out being reminded… It’s a right of passage. If it was easy, anyone could do it, and believe me, not everyone can. The first Starbucks I ever visited was an awakening….

While they all look different on the outside, the interior uses the same formula.  The often used the converted living room decor ala “Central Perk”.  Ambient lighting, earth tones, mild use of decorative textures – all set to reinforce the image and allure of an oasis of calm, cool and collected within the thriving metropolis of your choice.  All usually made more appealing by the, lets face it, slightly post-pubescent scenery.

I entered and walked up to the counter – cautiously ignoring the barrage of impulse items readily available to me.  Waited patiently as the people in front of me placed their orders, then stepped to the other end of the counter to await their beverage. I was impressed with the fact that they HAD a process – not whether it worked or not.  Clearly someone had gone through the trouble of establishing the proper procedure for the exchange of goods for dollars. Like the ‘Soup Nazi’ – we all clearly had a specific role to play in this process. In retrospect, paying more attention to what was being ordered may have served me well…

The young lady taking my order looked, frankly, like she wasn’t cool enough to hang out there.  Standing about 5’5″, with blond hair and the same black shirt/green apron as the other guy behind the counter.  She looked almost out of place with out a pink notebook or tea cup dog on her arm.  Although, she apparently spoke Italian…

“Hello Sir.  Welcome to Starbucks.  Can I get you a Macchiato today?”

Maccha-what?  I thought they sold coffee.

“No thanks.” I said, “Just a coffee please.”

“Yes Sir. What kind would you like?” She was very chipper.

Sir?  What am I –  40?  Wait…

“What kind do you have?”  I asked, regretting it immediately.

“You can get a Macchiato, an Americano, a Latte, white or dark Mocha, espresso or the daily roast.  We also have a variety of Frappuccinos and iced blends as well.”

Was any of that coffee?

I looked at her with a straight face and replied, “So, What kind do you have?”  She repeated the list all the way through again – verbatim.

“So… what kind do you have?” Again. Straight face.

She smiles.  Takes a breath as if she about to deep sea dive with out a respirator.  This time she is pre-empted by the kid to her right who was making the drinks.  He was only slightly amused, but that’s probably because he more sick of hearing it than I was.

“Sally.  He’s kidding…”  She looked relieved and blushed slightly.

“Good!”  She exclaimed, “I didn’t want to go through THAT again!”

“My sentiments exactly” I said.  “Can I get a cup of decaf, please”

I was a little worried that my sarcasm was offensive – not like that’s EVER happened before… it was a waste of energy.  She didn’t get it.

“What size would you like, Sir”

“I’ll have a small cup please.”

“We don’t have small.  Your choices are Tall, Grande and Venti”.   I’m sure there’s a script she’s reading somewhere, but I can’t see it.  I look at her with the same benign expression I’ve had since I arrived – which is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

“I’ll have a small cup please.”

“We don’t have small.  Your choices are Tall, Grande and Venti”. It doesn’t get better hearing it more often.  Her enthusiasm is wavering, but her resilience is not.  The barrister to her right smiles, takes a small cup from a stack and starts preparing the coffee with out saying a word.

“What is the smallest size you have?”  I asked, trying not to sound condescending.  I’ve house broken dogs easier than this…

“Well – let’s see.  A Venti is the biggest and a Tall is the smallest.”  She replied confidently.

“So if I’m looking for the smallest cup possible, what would I order?”  I’m finding my self speaking slowly.  I’m not really sure we are speaking the same language. I couldn’t resist raising a single eye brow at this point.

“Then you would like a tall?…”  I don’t know if she was asking me or telling me.  Before I could ask, a tall decaf with a lid and cardboard sleeve appeared in front of her.

“Are you asking me or telling me?”  I asked.  She looked at the cup as if someone had slipped her the test answer under her desk.

“Telling you!” She was all smiles now.

I can’t resist…

“So a tall is a small?  Seems a bit counter intuitive doesn’t it?”

“Uh… What?” She cocked her head to the side like my dog does when I make a funny noise.  Maybe she’s house broken after all.

“Never mind.  Tall it is!” I exclaimed in mutual triumph.  By golly she’d done it.  Sparticus would be proud…

“Would you like anything else Sir?  Perhaps a boysenberry scone?”  I thought about asking her what was in the scone but decided against it. I’ve never felt more like Niles Crane in my life.

“No thanks.  Just the coffee.”  I handed her the exact change.  She’d been through a lot.  I couldn’t help but notice that it was 3 times what I thought a cup of coffee should be, but at that point, paying to get out of there was an acceptable option…

In terms of full disclosure I have to admit – things have changed since that day.  I’m in a Starbucks many times each week. most of their employees work pretty hard to read the crowd and create the environment that is just the right amount of friendly.  They respond to those people that chat with them, and are not obtrusive to those that don’t.   I enjoy the atmosphere, the convenience and the fact that most of the stores I go to start my drink before I ask for it.  It’s kind of like Cheers – you want to be where everyone knows your name.

There’s also a culture factor.  Anyone who’s set foot in Manhattan in the last 10 years knows that there are usually Three Starbucks within Two blocks of where ever you happen to be standing at any given moment. In the big cities, these stores represent a brief but needed respite from the pedestrian commute.  In the smaller towns, they provide the illusion of a larger city- In both function and fashion.

Some consider Starbucks the Evil empire – a sell out – a gross monopolistic enterprise that serves awful coffee.  I’ve grown to disagree.  It’s been said that you can’t have capitalism with out consumerism. And as a consumer I find myself subscribing to the theory that being there is most times better than not.  I don’t know that I buy in to the ostentatiousness that some seem to be peddling, but let’s face it – we all like at least a whiff of elitism that drinking something you can’t pronounce gives you.  I’ll take just a whiff though please.  Not enough to actually get any on me…

‘Course that’s just how it looks through my eyes.  Your view may differ….

-B

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