Can you tell where in the world this Starbucks is? No, you can’t. And that’s the point.
A shout out to my colleague, John, who always seems to know where the closest Starbucks is, no matter where business travel takes him.
I recognize I may already have alienated 2/3s of my readership with my title statement. Starbucks bashing is now a national pastime. But let’s face it—their main sin has been that of significant global conglomerate success. Yes, they may be responsible for driving less robust competitors in secondary markets out of business. But, without the Starbucks cult of “a latte in every hand,” many currently thriving mom and pops never would have come into existence. Starbucks ignited the coffeehouse renaissance that we all benefit from today.
I must first admit that, when in the U.S., I rarely choose Starbucks as my first tier coffeestop. I enjoy the local flavor of an in situ establishment. I have been a 5-year patron and recent Facebook fan of Venice Grind and still miss the gang back in Mar Vista barista-ing the espresso machines. (like Venice Grind on FB!)
However, there are reasons to love this brand juggernaut when traveling and living as an expat. In descending order of importance:
1) I know where the bathroom is. This requires little explanation from the simply mechanical nature of body physiology. But it goes beyond knowing that there will always be an available bathroom in a Starbucks. There are several important subgroups to this point.
It’s intuitively placed. There is never the awkward moment of searching for a phrasebook, asking the question and getting directions you can’t possibly comprehend. It’s just always where it should be. Anyone can find the bathroom in a Starbucks.
It’s almost always unlocked. While in the U.S. we are accustomed to cost free, open use lavatories, many countries charge to use the facilities. Out of coins? You are also SOL.
It’s relatively clean. I’m not saying every Starbucks has impeccable restrooms. But they are usually passable and, depending on the local standards, oftentimes above expectations–except in, like, Sweden or Singapore where every surface in every establishment is pristine. Considering I once paid to enter a restroom in Zagreb only to discover that, not only was toilet paper not included in the fee, but the facilities were merely an open hole into the ground where the broken toilet used to be, you can understand my appreciation for “good enough.”
2) Familiarity is comforting. This is also broken into several categories.
Home sweet home redux. I truly believe in immersing oneself in the local culture. But when local culture gets too overwhelming, it’s nice to step into a haven of American-ness before venturing out into the fray again.
Comfy seating. I like Europe. I like Asia. But my arse is American and seating in many other countries is often less accommodating. Starbucks seats are reliably broad and cozy. While it feels adventurous and fun to download emails while sitting on vegetable crates in a makeshift Vietnamese coffeeshop, it’s not an experience I would like to repeat daily. In addition, in many populous cities, seating is placed one on top the other to maximize profitability and increase turnover. I am, at my heart, a suburban-nearly-rural gal, and tight seating makes me itchy. Starbucks maintains a sense of spaciousness even in markets where 2.3 square feet of personal space is the norm (read more about proxemetrix, the science of personal space)
Everything on the menu is identifiable. After weeks of stumbling through foreign language menus and often receiving something entirely different than what I thought I requested, it is a relief to order with confidence.
Staff is generally friendly. Starbucks is very brand protective. They consistently hire a specific personality type. Even in Paris where rudeness is proudly lauded as a national sport, I have been welcomed with smiles and tolerance of my poor French.
3) Internet connectivity, mostly free. There is a lot of free and low cost connectivity globally but it’s not always easy to navigate. Even without knowledge of the local language, it’s usually pretty easy to hook up in a Starbucks.
I’ve always felt strongly that one should have a backup plan in life and real estate has been quite a volatile industry over the last five years. Starbucks has a great reputation for fair pay, managerial opportunity and employee benefits so it is my number one choice for alternative employment should things go horribly awry. Number two is fishing canneries in Alaska.
I’m kinda hoping the current gig works out.