Uncovering the Mystique of the Starbucks Phenomenon

It cannot be denied that customers of Starbucks coffee shops are dominating the worldwide coffee drinking population. With thousands of locations across the planet and stores around every bend, it seems that they literally have a corner on the market.

Just look at New York City, where Starbucks compete with other Starbucks, even when they are sometimes only 1 block apart-1 city block, that is. Picture the scene of a loyal Starbucks employee, proudly claiming to inquiring customers, “Our Starbucks is the busiest one in Manhattan.” The novelty of a company competing with itself is only rivaled by the new flavors of drinks this place keeps coming up with, like the Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino blended crÃ?¨me.

Sure, they sometimes get your drink order wrong. But, you have to give those baristas-those masters of creating a coffee-induced buzz disguised in so many different forms-due credit. When they take orders all day for drinks like a double-tall-skim-soy-caramel-mocha-machiatto-no-whip-in-a-grande-cup, it is understandable that a request for a large coffee could be confusing. “That’s all? No fat free banana nut bread to go with that?” No. Just give me a coffee. And I know where the half-and-half and sugar are.

Even with those seemingly endless minutes spent waiting for a drink order just to find out that someone in the coffee house chain gang spaced off on your order or the guy behind you in line made off with your Frappuccino, there is just something about Starbucks. It’s a mysterious pull that keeps you coming back time and again, even after you swear to your friends, “I am totally off of Starbucks for good now! Four bucks for a Latte! Yeah right! The coffee at work’s not that bad.” But alas, a week (or less) later, you are back in line at Starbucks, pondering the menu that you already have memorized, as if you don’t know what you want. “HmmâÂ?¦.well maybe if I get a tea I can start to break the habit for good.” Yes, coffee could quite possibly be a drug after all.

There’s just something about this little coffee chain that goes beyond caffeine, though. Take a look at its humble roots as a hole in the wall storefront in the heart of Seattle’s Pike Street Farmer’s Market. It was a basic concept whose time had come-a couple of guys figured they would import high quality coffee beans for the fine people of the Pacific Northwest, and give them a good cup of coffee. The people at Starbucks seem to know how to fill a need.

And the company’s attitude hasn’t changed much in the more than 30 years since. They are now vested in several programs promoting social responsibility and sustainable development, such as Fair Trade and a clean water program for third world countries.

Aside from their responsible yet hip way of giving back to the world, there must be a reason for Starbucks’ popularity that goes beyond the herd mentality. Just look at New York City. For the City that Never Sleeps, you think there would be outstanding coffee shops on every corner. But as a native Washingtonian who was born in Seattle just 6 years after Starbucks, now living in New York, I can attest to the fact that this is a city shockingly spare in the coffee shop department (excluding Starbucks). There are plenty of delis with something akin to cafeteria brand stale Folgers Crystals, but a great coffee shop hangout is a rare find. And I live in Greenwich Village which was once known as a bastion of poets, artists and the coffeehouses they spent time hanging out in.

So after personally looking high and low for almost a year, it seems that even in the greatest city on earth, almost no place rivals Starbucks for its coffee (although a bit pricey), atmosphere, good music, accessibility, and general feeling. When I sit down in a Starbucks, whatever city it happens to be in, I feel at home. The warm smell of coffee and the freedom to stay as long as you want is only part of it. It is something more intangible than that. I have some of my most creative moments as a writer, sitting in Starbucks and pondering different questions and trains of thought. In fact, I wrote this while in Starbucks on 42nd Avenue. While sitting atop the tall wooden chairs at the window counter, smooth jazz music carried over a few people chatting as I watched the people of Gotham City stroll by on a warm August evening. It is a satisfying feeling.

When it comes to finding a place to really get down to writing, or read a book undisturbed, or kicking back with a copy of the newspaper, Starbucks is almost always my first choice. Coffee shops have been around for a long time, and back home in Seattle they are part of our way of life, just as much as the rain. Maybe what Starbucks exports to the world, that which is so intangible yet draws so many people in, is part coffee and part Pacific Northwest spirit. It’s artsy without being totally off the wall, and welcoming if you want to stay-but speedy enough to get you on your way. It has enough character to be interesting, but stops short of being exclusive or weird.

Maybe people like Starbucks so much because of what they take away that has nothing to do with coffee-it is the kind of place that just lets you be yourself. If you don’t believe me, next time you are there, listen closely to some of those crazy drink orders that customers invent.

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