Why do people hate Starbucks?

by Garrison Frost

Note: This piece was actually written about two years ago, but has proven to be one of the most popular items on the site, and the object of search engines everywhere. We bring it up front again for your reading enjoyment.

The protests that rocked the World Trade Organization's ministerial meetings in Seattle at the end of last year were fascinating for many reasons. It was interesting to see environmentalists take to the streets alongside labor unions. It was odd to see politicians, particularly President Clinton, suddenly change their tune on the benefits of world trade. And it was inspiring to see journalists give a popular movement the attention it deserved.

But what really caught my eye was video footage of rioters ransacking a Starbucks in downtown Seattle.

For once, people were physically acting out their negative emotions about the corporate giant. And for it to happen on television right in the company's hometown of Seattle seemed to signal a new level of antipathy about Starbucks that has been brewing (pun intended) ever since the corporate monolith began its invasion of coffee culture.

What does any of this have to do with the South Bay? Not much really, except when you consider that Starbucks and imitators Peet's and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf have been waging a pitched battle for area coffee drinkers since the mid-1990s.

For instance, downtown Manhattan Beach in the early 90s had no fewer than five independent coffeehouses thriving in the area. Everyone had a different identity and clientele. Some sold books, others bagels, art or cinnamon rolls. A local poetry scene blossomed. But as the decade came to a close, those independents were whittled down to just one by the establishment of Starbucks, Peet's and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. People continue to get their coffee, but in an environment less defined by their local tastes than by national corporate marketing programs. Stories like this are happening in cities all over the world.

Of course, lots of people like Starbucks. You don't build up a worldwide empire of more than 2,200 locations with a business plan that doesn't appeal to anyone. And Starbucks is far from the worst corporate neighbor the world has seen, with an environmental mission statement, progressive labor benefits and a host of cooperative charitable activities.

Still, a lot of people clearly hate Starbucks. Which is particularly interesting, given that coffeehouses in general don't typically inspire that type of extreme emotion. When was the last time you heard someone say they hated Java Man in Hermosa Beach or Sacred Grounds in San Pedro? Probably never. You either love those places, or you just don't go there. Hatred seems reserved for Starbucks and its corporate imitators.

So why do people hate Starbucks so much? The answer is readily available by just walking into one.

The interior of your typical Starbucks is a classic example of co-optation. The company has succeeded by taking elements of the coffeehouse counterculture and marketing it to masses in a more generic form. Instead of original art on the walls, you have graphic ensembles created by a team of artists for every location. Instead of the eclectic musical tastes of the staff, you hear quirky jazz selections which are available on a Starbucks CD if you want to listen at home. And instead of the coffee drinks and unique blends of your typical independent coffee house, you have the Frappuccino®.

Something always seems false in a Starbucks. Most coffeehouses encourage people to stay as long as they want, but most Starbucks near me have 15-minute limits on all parking spaces. Most coffeehouses encourage people to hang out and play board games. Starbucks will sell you a board game. Most coffeehouses have a unique environment. All Starbucks look the same on the inside, even the one down the street from me in the barely-disguised former Kentucky Fried Chicken building. When you see a person in a Starbucks hunkered down with a notebook at a table -- not an unfamiliar sight in a coffeehouse -- you are tempted to wonder if the novel he writes will be the literary equivalent of the faux environment in which he sits. More likely. he is just doing his Social Studies homework.

In the last few weeks there was speculation among technology observers that the reason for the recent attacks on Yahoo! and several other corporate Internet sites was a belated reaction from computer purists who didn't like the intrusion of moneyed interests into their realm. The raids seemed to say, "How dare you come here and make money selling something that was never yours to begin with?"

The people who descended on Seattle last fall were the same type of people who created the coffeehouse counterculture -- intellectuals, free-thinkers, political independents. Their message to WTO ministers was that they were tired of corporations diminishing cultural values for profit. And however wrong they were to employ violence and destruction at the corporation's downtown location, their message was essentially the same when they broke the windows and trashed the cappuccino machine at the Starbucks.