Friday, March 01, 2013

All Starbucks Are Different

I noticed a review of a local Starbucks that claimed they are all the same. This opinion is common on the internet but nothing could be further from the truth. No two Starbucks are the same. All of them are different and usually in many ways. Even the same Starbucks can differ from day to day or from morning to night.

The Staff

Some baristas are pleasant to interact with, others not. I won’t order a special drink if I see someone I don’t trust back there at the syrups. I learn which baristas are where and when each time of each day, and plan my order accordingly. Some locations don’t have any customer-friendly employees. But then, a lot of that depends on who you are and whether they want to provide you with good service or not. I see that a lot in a diverse place like Washington, DC.

The Coffee

I don’t think I’m imagining it when the same coffee takes different from one day to the next. The preparation of the coffee can make it taste like I ordered Pike instead of Blonde. I’ve stopped ordering Blonde coffee at one particular location because the minority baristas won’t give it to me. They pretend I wanted Bold. This happened every day until I stopped going there. I finally told them they didn’t pour the right coffee into my cup and made them try and try again.

Furniture

I prefer a Starbucks with plenty of small round tables. I’ve learned to avoid the long wooden community benches, such as you would expect to see in a soup kitchen for the homeless. In front of the benches are several tables with chairs on the opposite side. Perhaps the idea is to save money by buying one bench instead of several chairs. Or more likely, it is considered “furniture diversity.” You are often at the mercy of the others sitting on the bench. People getting up and back down cause shock waves from one end to the other. Then you have people who take your space with their bags and whatnot.

The upholstered easy chairs can be a good deal, unless you need a table for your laptop. And the easy chairs are often reserved quickly by the homeless who use them as beds. To sit in a cushioned chair isn’t the same as sitting on a wooden stool.

Artwork

I used to see a lot of 3- or 16-panel artwork on the walls. It seemed to be a current fad, but what artistic point is made by chopping a painting into 3 panels or 16 squares--as if separating them somehow makes a more profound statement.

Some cafes display a higher grade of art (relatively) and I wonder how it’s decided which locations get what. Now the trend is a collection of art focusing on what I assume are coffee fields in South America and the people who work them. I imagine it is to educate first-world customers on “the real people behind the coffee in your cup.” I’d prefer a return to the banal 3-panel stuff.

Customers

What kind of people does a cafe attract? And how many? Is there an active social scene or is it a ghost cafe everyone avoids?

The regulars can be professionals on their way to work in the morning, students using the free wifi before school, homemakers with their screaming children, job interviewers and interviewees, taxi drivers speaking to each other in unintelligible languages, and the aforementioned homeless bums.

Many regular groups are obnoxious. They confiscate their favorite chairs and tables and talk too loudly. Many seem retired, or should be. I typically avoid these groups because they worry me for a lot of reasons, and I don’t agree that it would be an extreme honor for me to have them near.

I try to spend most of my time alongside pleasant people, although you just can’t predict who will walk in the door and sit down next to you. I’ve been surprised many times. Anything can happen in a public place and there is a certain amount of vulnerability in spending time in one.

Neighborhood

I like to be able to see what’s going on outside my cafes, so I like a view of the windows. Who goes by the door without walking in? What other businesses are nearby? Is it a dangerous place? Or can you feel you are safe enough so you won’t get killed or attacked?

Lighting

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote about “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” but too much light kills a good cafe. Harsh light has no place in a cafe because it is a refuge from such things. And bright lights are the bane of laptop and mobile device users. Some cafes have too many lights shining down on the customers. And the best cafes have curtains at the windows that can be drawn when the sun is too bright, making it impossible to see the screen of an iPhone. I equate bright light with the doctor or the dentist.

Music

I avoid a certain cafe because the sound system emits loud static over the music. There is a short-circuit with the speakers. Apparently the staff doesn’t believe it’s a problem. A change in the songs from day to day is a good thing. It’s not pleasant to hear the same songs every day.

Staffs change. A few good customers come in and replace a few bad ones and vice versa. The furniture changes. The artwork. The ambiance shifts from day to night. At the same cafe. And all the others.

Nothing is the same anywhere.