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Why the World Is Obsessed With Starbucks

Editor
How a wholesale coffee operation in Seattle became a worldwide cultural phenomenon

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Breakfast in America: What It Is and What It Means for more.

Starbucks is a major part of American culture. It’s often our first stop before we head to work or school; it functions as a temporary office for many of us; it can even serve as an after-hours hangout — with friends or in isolation. The coffee is fresh, the environment is inviting, and the speakers play some seriously good tunes. Almost anywhere in the world, that classic green apron grants a warm welcome; it's coffee’s familiar face.

“Our aspiration since the beginning has been to build a different kind of company — performance-driven through the lens of humanity,” spokeswoman Sanja Gould told The Daily Meal. “There are so many reasons Starbucks has come to be such a celebrated brand.”

It all started in 1971, when three college friends founded a small coffee, tea, and spice shop near Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Its employees wore simple brown grocer’s aprons, the same shade as the shop’s original siren logo — then as now a mermaid with two tails, though the original figure displayed bare breasts and a navel (the far more chaste and stylized current logo, of course, is green). The company name was borrowed from Starbuck, the chief mate in Moby-Dick — not because the sailor had any identification with coffee or tea but because a colleague of one of the founders thought words beginning with “st” were powerful (though the company website now claims that the name "evoked the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of early coffee traders").

pike place market

Starbucks Newsroom

At first, Starbucks primarily sold high-quality coffee beans and equipment to fine restaurants and espresso bars. For 14 years, they didn't brew coffee to sell — just free samples to showcase their wares.

In 1982, the store multiplied by four. William Stiles was a part-time clerk at the Starbucks Capitol Hill (Seattle) location, arriving only a few months before Howard Schultz, a manager who eventually bought the chain and changed its direction. At the time, employees began sporting cutoffs and flip-flops. “I remember the first time I ground a bag of beans,” Stiles said. “The sensory overload of the aroma of the coffee was intoxicating. I just loved it. It was the coolest thing I had ever done.”

A year later, Schultz traveled to Italy, where he was dazzled by the popularity of espresso bars in Milan. Back in the States, he started his own espresso chain — but in 1987, he bought Starbucks from the original owners, and rebranded it as a coffeehouse where people could gather and sip caffeinated beverages in a communal atmosphere, in addition to buying beans and coffee-making paraphernalia to take home.

By 1989, Starbucks had 46 locations in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, serving a choice of half a dozen handcrafted coffee and espresso beverages. The counter staff was given the shiny new title “barista” and fresh green aprons — premiering the updated logo —with crisp white shirts and black bowties, in the style of their Italian counterparts. Classical music and instrumental jazz danced through the sound system and, not long after, the voices of Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald were added to the mix.


Starbucks Newsroom

Michelle Dougherty, who works in Starbucks retail operations, was a barista in San Jose, California, in the 1990s. “Way back when I started, we weren’t even writing on cups yet,” Dougherty told the Starbucks Newsroom. “We identified a drink by the way we laid each cup on the espresso machine.”

Starbucks went public in 1992. Two years later, the company bought a smaller Boston-based competitor called The Coffee Connection, thereby acquiring the rights to sell that chain's popular Frappuccino. Today, there are more than 7,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S., and as of January this year there were 25,734 worldwide, on six continents and in 74 countries and territories, serving a total of around 90 million customers a week. And Starbucks recently announced plans to expand into the place where the idea for the modern-day chain might be said to have formed — a Starbucks "roastery" will open in Milan in 2018, the chain’s first incursion into Italy.

Amit Ahuja has been writing about coffee since 2012. On his blog Fried Coffee, he talks about how Starbucks has become the icon it is today.

When Starbucks first opened, he writes, “coffee connoisseurs were rare in the U.S., and espresso was seldom found outside of Italian restaurants. At diners and donut shops across the country, people drank generic, mass-produced, and often weakly brewed coffee.”

A generation of Americans has grown up with Starbucks as a better alternative (though Ahuja points out that in most taste-tests, people prefer the coffee served at McDonald’s!). Of course, Starbucks has gone far beyond espresso. It now offers endless flavors and customizable combinations — there’s a caffeinated beverage for everyone. And for those rare folks who don’t like coffee, there are smoothies, teas, and fresh-pressed juices. “These drinks are so popular,” Ahuja points out, “that other coffee chains have had to introduce similar products in order to compete.”

Another factor in the chain's ever-growing popularity is simply the way that Starbucks seems to present itself as a sort of luxury that “almost everyone can afford.” According to Ahuja, “With its Italianized names, its inviting décor, and even its unreasonably high prices, Starbucks feels like an indulgence or a reward. It’s easier to drag yourself to work on a Monday morning when you treat yourself to your favorite latte on the way. Many studies have shown that our enjoyment of foods and drinks, even our perception of how they taste, is enhanced by branding and clever packaging.”

unicorn frappuccino

Starbucks Newsroom

He adds that the coffeehouse also acts as a “third place,” which is neither home nor work, but a neutral community space. “A cup of coffee may cost more at Starbucks than McDonald’s,” Ahuja writes, “but you’re also paying rent on a pleasant, inviting living room where you can stay for a while and meet with friends or work colleagues.” Shops also offer free Wi-Fi, making Starbucks an optimal location to work outside the office.

While coffee and tea drinks are the most important part of the business, company spokeswoman Sanja Gould notes that the company’s food is also important. “Food is a natural piece with getting hot coffee or tea in the morning,” she told The Daily Meal. In 2008, Starbucks considered getting out of the breakfast sandwich business, but instead reformulated the offerings.

Over the years, Starbucks has responded as patrons have asked for high-protein items, gluten-free options, and breakfast sandwiches made with cage-free eggs. When such products are past their “serve by” date (but still considered fresh and safe to consume), they’re donated to Food Lifeline, a food charity.

Starbucks has also gained a reputation as a socially responsible company. They hire military veterans and their spouses, offer a debt-free tuition program for college students, and supply health insurance even to regular part-time employees. After a “partner” (as employees are called) has been with the business for one year, the company gives him or her stock shares.

Ultimately, though, the success of Starbucks around the country and the world rests on one thing. “At Starbucks,” Gould told us, “coffee is at our core — the heart of what we do every day. We guarantee an unrivaled cup of coffee because of the care we put into ensuring quality from farm to cup.”

Click here to see the Starbucks secret menu update.

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