For months now I’ve been trying and trying to start this post, yet so far I can’t make it past the first paragraph without erasing it all and starting from scratch. So instead I think I’ll just explain bluntly the essence of this post and hopefully the natural flow will kick in sometime before the end. Here goes.
It was an incredibly liberating feeling the day I turned around and told myself that I just don’t like Starbucks, not that I ever went there all that often; I’d say no more than ten times in total. But the times I did go I remember almost trying to fool myself afterwards, trying to kid myself that I’d really enjoyed it and would go again. Now I’m not one to go against corporate chains just on the basis that it’s a chain. No, that’s silly. But here we have the largest coffee house chain in the world and yet, I’m just not convinced it’s that good, at all.
Picture the scene. You’ve been shopping all day and your arms are dropping. The bags hanging around each finger are matched only by the bags under your eyes. You’re tired, in need of a good sit, and a nice hot drink to take the edge off. Perhaps it’s cold outside, or maybe you’re simply roasting from the blast of heat you get as you go from shop to shop. Your feet ache, and your legs are about to give up.
At this point what I’d want is a nice quiet sit down with a hot cup of coffee, perhaps a chat over a cappuccino, maybe even a light baked snack over a latte, or my own favourite, a cup of tea with a toasted teacake. So, onto the nearest decent looking café!
So why don’t I get on with Starbucks? Well you get the idea of what I want, but here’s what I actually get.
Upon walking into Starbucks I’m hit almost instantly by the amount of people queuing. Granted it takes time to make a hot drink, toast a panini, dish up slices of cake and whatnot. But it seems that every time I go into Starbucks, there seems to be a small crowd of people either stood queuing, paying, or waiting for their name to be shouted out.
After you’ve queued for what can be quite some time, decoded the name-specific sizing of the cups, declined an expensive slice of ‘not-at-all-what-you-were-after’ cake, paid for it, waited some more, heard your name being shouted out, and then tracked down your drink in the collection area (which depending on the store you’re in can be quite silly) it’s time for the next challenge. Coffee in hand, bags in the other, sweltering under your jacket and/or coat, it’s time to sit dow- Oh hang on. Milk and sugar!
This is always fun, as in not remotely amusing. Tracking down the milk and sugar (again, depending on which Starbucks you’re in) is either a simple task that requires the most basic ability to see, or a task set out specifically for those with exceptional balance (as you’ve not yet sat down and you’re still carrying everything including your shopping), unmatched agility (to slip through the barrage of folk either waiting for coffee and/or looking for their coffee) and luck (to play and win at ‘silver-flask-lucky-dip’), a game in which customers reach out with whatever unoccupied limbs they have left, grabbing relentlessly at the silver flasks in the hope that the one they’ve secured is both a) the correct milk/cream they wanted, and b) not empty.
Of course the key words in all of this are ‘tracking down the milk and sugar’. It is only after finding where the flasks are stored that the Hunger Games can begin.
If you do manage to win at lucky dip then congratulations. You’re ready to sit down and enjoy that wonderful cup of coffee with just the right amount of semi-skimmed milk in it, with one demerara sugar, just how you like it.
But before we can talk about and taste the drink itself, we need to overcome the next challenge. And this one is my favourite of them all. It’s an excellent challenge that mercilessly separates the patient from the impatient, the calm from the frantic, the spatially aware from the clumsy, and the polite from the rude.
“But what on earth could this challenge be?” you may ask. It’s one that’s grim enough to repel even the most loyal of Starbucks’ clientèle: finding a seat.
You turn around, coffee in hand, and gaze hopelessly over the endless sea of occupied seats. The sound of talking and typing build up in layers; getting louder and then quieter, as if to produce a foundation. As the tempo increases so does the volume, as other elements of the ensemble make their contribution. Customers’ names being yelped from aside, as the medley of mobile phones and rocking prams do little to dampen the hiss of the milk steamer. Whilst the canopy of arched necks and shoulders remains still over their screens, percussive beats against the tables and chairs from the children who no longer care for their frappuccinos beautifully initiate the crescendo from the screaming child.
You venture forth in hope to find a seat, artfully dodging other people’s bags and coats. As you step over the first, the corridor between tables and chairs becomes narrower. You try ceaselessly not to disturb others, yet reacting quickly as so not to spill your coffee on the spatially unaware child that’s just run into your leg. Making sure not to disturb that child’s game of ‘guns’ again, that he’s so cleverly chosen to play inside the coffee shop, you try an alternate route.
You notice that towards the front of the shop by the glass window looking out onto the street, it seems a lot calmer. You work your way towards those tables one step at a time, paying dear attention not to step on, catch, or trip over the unforgiving web of laptop charging cables.
A dozen people sit with cold, empty polystyrene cups with no intention of moving on, at least not until they’ve done updating Facebook, completed their coursework, or finished tomorrow’s PowerPoint presentation. In the corner two people are debating over the use of a plug socket, neither of which are there for coffee. More and more people head into the shop, dead electrical goods in hand, leaning their heads downwards to check for anywhere they could plug their charger in. The noise begins to grow again, yet you still haven’t sat down. After safely navigating Indiana Jones style through the labyrinth of cables and shopping bags, pacing endlessly up and down the store looking for a seat, let’s skip forward a bit.
You now have a seat, your coat is off, bags on the floor, it’s coffee time. *sigh* See I’m no coffee connoisseur but I know when I’ve had a good coffee; you don’t have to be an expert to tell the difference. Yet with Starbucks, the coffee doesn’t grab me either. It’s okay at best but it’s not brilliant. I’m struggling to find the correct words to describe it; the words do that come to mind are burnt and bitter. The flavour isn’t all there, and I can’t help feeling that the coffee feels a little thin.
My personal favourite coffee house chain is undoubtedly Caffè Nero. Yes it costs a little more, but the quality and taste of the coffee blows Starbucks’ out of the water. And perhaps it’s due to the slightly higher prices that I always manage to find a seat as the place isn’t crammed with students fiddling on their laptops. (http://tinyurl.com/mzlmtpb)
I would even go so far as to saying that McDonald’s coffee is a suitable contender in the Coffee Wars. In terms of getting what you pay for, I’d rather seek out the golden arch over the green mermaid when sourcing out the next blast of caffeine.
So how to bring this post to an end?
I guess I’d have to end by starting where I began, that feeling of liberation. Call it commercial pressure; with so many Starbucks around town it must be the best, so why go anywhere else? Call it peer pressure from friends of mine who insist it’s the best.
It might sound a little strange, but accepting that something just isn’t your cup of tea and firmly saying no to it can be quite tough at first. For me it’s like clubbing. I want to really enjoy it and for years I’ve gone through the cycle of putting myself out of my comfort zone, trying to convince myself I had a really good night etc. The truth is, I just don’t like it all and I don’t think I ever will. Give me a decent pub, pool table, real beer and a jukebox any day!
And with that, I’ll draw to a close the first of many posts in a series I’d like to call – Popular Things I Really Don’t Like, with more on the club scene coming up next.