Why NZers are wrong about Starbucks

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. 

When 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.

I 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.

My 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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