The Coffee Shop Dilemma


original starbucks, Seattle

In the early 90’s I hated Starbucks. I was a young dramatic theatre kid and a couple of my favorite coffee shops in downtown Chicago closed when a Starbucks moved in (RIP Scenes). I spoke loudly and often about how Local Is Better! How I would never patronize The Huge Corporate Coffee Bully! I jumped on the “Starbucks coffee is burnt!” train and I harassed my brother when he got a job at Starbucks. Selling out! Supporting The Man! Fortunately my brother largely ignores me when I get like that.

I actively avoided Starbucks for a couple years, and then I patronized them but lied about it (this coffee? I don’t remember where I got it…). And then I patronized them but disparaged them (It’s Starbucks. I know, they suck but it was the only place open…) and then I finally just treated them like any other coffee shop. I stopped thinking about the corporate/independent dilemma until I went on tour with a show where at least once a week I found myself in a strange city looking for coffee at 6am.

You know what’s open every morning at 6am, all over the USA in cities big and small and almost always in walking distance of a theatre? Starbucks. So we went to Starbucks. We also went to independent coffee shops when they were available but there the coffee was sometimes good and other times not, the prices varied widely, the time spent getting coffee also varied and most times at 6am it felt like a hassle when everything else was already a hassle. The blessing and curse of a corporation is that you always know what you’re going to get and at 6am when everyone’s running on 20% uncaffeinated capacity, we opted for consistency and we got it with cheerful fast service.

I was reminded of this attitude evolution recently when I drove through Leavenworth WA with my sister Bethany and we stopped at Red Bird Coffee House. It was a rainy slushy day in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we had two kids on the verge and a 4 hour car drive ahead of us. Coffee was an undisputed necessity. I went in to get a latte and an Americano and there were 2 people in line ahead of me. The place was busy and there were a couple baristas behind the counter but it took about 10 minutes for me to even place my order.

During that 10 minute wait, a baker brought out a pan of hot cookies fresh from the oven. I ordered 2 fresh cookies with my coffee, the girl rang me up and I paid. While she was trying to get my cookies, a man I think was the manager told her she couldn’t have them. He then came to me and said “You have to take one of the plastic wrapped cookies on the counter. I have to rotate my product.”

Yes, he called it product.

When I protested that the plastic wrapped cookies weren’t warm or fresh, he offered to put them in the oven for me but said again that he had to rotate his product. He couldn’t give me the fresh cookies because if he did “everyone would want one” and then he’d never be able to sell the plastic wrapped ones.

It’s staggering, really. I thought the point of offering a food service is to actually give people hot fresh food if that’s what they want instead of pawning off plastic wrapped product. I just looked at him after he said that but he pointed to the plastic wrapped cookies and then he walked away.

By this point I had already been in the shop for 15 minutes, I still didn’t have coffee and I didn’t even want the cookies but getting my money back from this annoyed man seemed like more hassle than it was worth. So I picked up 2 plastic wrapped cookies, waited another 10 minutes for my coffee and left. I gave the cookies to the kids because they were, as expected, a hard dry product.

And you know what? Red Bird coffee is better than Starbucks. You know what else?  A coffee shop isn’t only about the coffee.

It’s a difficult truth for me to acknowledge, but just being a local establishment doesn’t make it better. Better is better. And sometimes, better is Starbucks.

4 thoughts on “The Coffee Shop Dilemma

  1. I would have had to get my money back- just for the principal of the matter. 20 minutes sucks! But I don’t go to Starbucks at all unless someone gives me a gift card. And then I go because otherwise it’s free money to Starbucks. (Complicated reasons involving the CEO’s apparent support of Zionism.)

  2. that was maddeningly ridiculous. who sells stale cookies when there are fresh ones?? dumb. we’ll never go there again. so THERE, red bird!

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