Why NZers are wrong about Starbucks

Last updated 09:20 06/06/2012

It has been of my experience that New Zealanders despise Starbucks.

The word Starbucks itself has become both noun and adjective; it is a word used alongside "McDonald's" or "Hollywood" as a broad putdown of a perceived American habit of commodifying products while hollowing out their worth. It is a brand we hold up as a warning sign when we want to argue for protecting the local from the advance of the global.

But it has been of my experience that on this subject New Zealanders, generally, are wrong. I still regard America as having a vastly inferior coffee culture to New Zealand. But the context by which we criticise Starbucks is off base. 

SB1When I returned to New Zealand after a long American stint in 2008, I had developed if not a fondness for tall, watery cups of filtered coffee, at least an acceptance of them. You can't go past a sharp, stiff long black to begin your morning. But I had come to appreciate the nearly indefatigable American cups of coffee, the way they sit with you for the morning, challenging you silently to make it through the cup before the beverage goes cold.

This preference is not often catered for in the New Zealand coffee market. In April 2009, I began a job on Victoria St in Wellington. I would walk past the Starbucks at the base of the Majestic Centre each day. In the 15 months I worked at that job, I indulged in a large cup of filtered coffee maybe two dozen times. I never told anyone. I'd seen the look on a friend's face years earlier when I was caught outside the Starbucks in the Reading Cinema complex with a Frappuccino. I knew better.

Starbucks has floundered in New Zealand, in that it has only been moderately, rather than rampantly, successful. There are more than 30 in New Zealand, but the number has been stagnant for a while and has dwindled as a few outlets have shut.

SB2I get why people don't frequent Starbucks in New Zealand. In Wellington, I could think of a dozen places where I could get better coffee within a short walk of any particular Starbucks. We think of ourselves as a nation with an incredible reputation for good coffee. We collectively see Starbucks as akin to taking in a Britney Spears concert in Nashville.

I'm not encouraging you to give it your business. I'm just asking you to reconsider your scorn.

Important for you to accept is that Starbucks is not the McDonald's of coffee.

A McDonald's hamburger is an approximation of a hamburger. It is a bad choice, from which dozens of good choices must be ignored for a customer to end up at its counter. A cup of coffee from Starbucks is a cup of coffee: it consists of hot water and beans, like any other cup, and there or thereabouts is decently made and constructed. It's no laboratory bastardisation.

Equally important in understanding why you should reserve your hatred of Starbucks is that a cup of its coffee in America is a considerably easier and more reliable bet than many other options. It doesn't make the best coffee in America, but I would still put it in the top tier of coffee proprietors here. That it balances a three-and-a-half-star reputation with being ubiquitous makes it that much easier to frequent.

SB3My re-evaluation of Starbucks began in Mexico City in 2007. I wasn't so much Starbucks-resistant as Starbucks-blind. Hanging about the city for two weeks, I took just a few days to realise that it was the only game in town.

The situation in America coffee-wise is not as dire as in Mexico, but you can still make some significant missteps.

Last week the extended Team Robinson was in Truckee, near Lake Tahoe. As the conversation did many a time travelling with New Zealanders steeped in a tradition of good espresso drinks, people started inquiring after coffee. We ended up getting our fix from a respectable-looking restaurant on the main strip of town. The coffee tasted as though pencil shavings and boiling water had been rinsed through a cup that had once held coffee. My mother threw hers in the bin soon after purchase. It summarised the attitude of the group.

I realised that the smart option would have been to get the group to hold off a few moments, and set course for the nearest Starbucks when we moved on to our next destination. I could bet safely that one would be nearby, and could serve up a drink that would be agreeable enough to all parties involved.

Sure, it wouldn't have been a flawless flat white or long black, bought from an immaculately manicured New Zealand cafe, served by a tastefully tattooed and sensitive artist who could talk about his time as an extra on The Hobbit while he made the drink. But that's not the end of the world.

See, the final thing to keep in mind about Starbucks is it is not actually that bad. Sure, there's all the half-caff-skim-caramel-macchiato nonsense, but the heart of its menu is still a good-ish, strong cup of coffee. Sure, it's a chain, and all the stores are all identically furnished. But the stores have a modicum of taste and stylistic restraint. There's natural-ish light and darker tones, which beats the hell out of the brightly lit, linoleum finish of your average fast-food joint. They're clean and the staff are better paid, more involved and happier than in other chain I've encountered.

It all leads me to this conclusion: if you switch up the lens that you look at Starbucks in, I just really can't see what the big deal is.

It has become a symbol of American suspicion whose reputation is entirely unwarranted. 

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174 comments
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pk   #1   09:29 am Jun 06 2012

4th para- yes it is the end of the world. Starbucks - as useful as male nipples

Boo Radley   #2   09:32 am Jun 06 2012

"A cup of coffee from Starbucks is a cup of coffee: it consists of hot water and beans, like any other cup, and there or thereabouts is decently made and constructed" Except some would argue that it ISN'T decently made and constructed. And just because it is only beans and water doesn't mean it's easy to make. My experience of Starbucks is tepid, watery, weak muck served in an oversized cup, called a stupid name. I would much rather walk on by!

Mat   #3   09:32 am Jun 06 2012

Went to starbucks (in NZ) once,the coffee was noticeably more expensive than the majority of coffee houses i have visited throughout the country and tasted terrible.

munky   #4   09:34 am Jun 06 2012

It's not Starbucks' coffee I object too, although ghod knows, whoever is behind launching the ridiculously and unnecessarily arcane 'language' of 'vendi extra-grande shot of couscous on the side' bollocks needs to be tied down and force-fed ristretto until their pulmonary system collapses. I object to Starbucks' business practices - they rode to global domination on a plan which saw, for example, the company open multiple franchises in one city block, with prices lowered to undercut existing businesses (profitable, independent, community-based, family-run, etc - all that good 'sustainable' stuff that first year marketing students pay no attention to) Once a foothold had been established and the smaller businesses closed down due to not being able to compete with such blatant loss-leading, Starbucks would then close down the least profitable of their own operations, leaving consumers with less choice - ah, the 'free' market and the greater power that flowed to the consumer as a result... Yes, Starbiucks might not operate to that model now (why should they? they now 'own' so much consumer space, physically and mentally), but they did and we are poorer for it.

Independent all the way, thanks - I will not support Starbucks...

radar83   #5   09:35 am Jun 06 2012

How much did you get from Starbucks to write this? Pretty crap to say the whole of New Zealand is wrong because you say so isn't it? I have been to starbucks twice with no friendly smile no acknowldgement of my importance of a customer just a "would you like fries with that?" attitude. I am sorry but coffee is a culture that brews from the morning smile and a genuine 'How are you?' from the girl at the counter. Something Americans know nothing about.

Price   #6   09:36 am Jun 06 2012

The Price of Starbucks coffee is what puts me off everytime ... They are excessively expensive. Quality as noted in the article has always been questioned aswell. There used to be a Starbucks at the Pak'n'save entrance in Albany, now replaced by a Chemist, and a small Coffee operator has setup outside, infinity better price and quality... enough said ...

Graham   #7   09:37 am Jun 06 2012

Whilst I never minded the coffee at Starbucks, the service I got at the Auckland Queen St branch on my last visit was so bad I vowed never to go back to another Starbucks. Not only could the staff barely speak English but I was served a Luke warm cup of Milk which was classed as a flat white. When I complained their English became even worse and pretty much ignored me.

Russ the muss   #8   09:38 am Jun 06 2012

Interesting concept. I do agree that when in a country such as China Starbucks is one of the few options, but in NZ I think not. interesting how far and wide the good old Flat white has travelled, on a recent trip to Germany they were avaialble in several places.

aj   #9   09:40 am Jun 06 2012

For me, it's not about the quality of the coffee. I'd just rather support a local business where the profits remain in NZ and are circulated back in the local economy.

Tracey Reid   #10   09:47 am Jun 06 2012

I am about to go on a four week tour of the States, and one of may aims is to find decent coffee in every place I visit that does not come from Starbucks! I know it will be a challenge, but I am willing to take it on. Of course the first leg of the journey should be easy - 5 days in New York.


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