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Summer and Starbucks

[whitespace] Starbucks Cup
Travel Cups: For thirsty, hungry travelers, the evil empire of caffeine has become the village hearth.

One woman's summer fling with well-made coffee

By Christina Waters

LIKE EVERY AGING hippie/liberal, I support my local businesses--independent bookstores, small movie houses and cozy coffeehouses where the owner pulls the espressos. Hence, my ideological fur rose right on cue when I started stumbling over Starbucks, like New Age McDonald's, everywhere I went. How dare they, I grumbled? How dare they think that we're going to go for all that slick design (though the mermaid with a crown of stars is a compelling logo)? How dare they offer such spacious, clean restrooms and attractively appointed seating and counter areas? And the pastries! The impeccable packaging! It was all too impossible. Surely it was just another case of consumer blight, I reasoned--like some yuppie ebola. I deleted it from my psychic bookmarks and went on with my life.

Ah, but about five years ago, when stuck in LAX after a long flight from Mexico City, I became born again, Starbucks-wise. It was 5am. I'd been in Mexican beach towns for weeks and was suffering from advanced espresso-deprivation. Suddenly, in the midst of the international terminal, it materialized. A Starbucks counter--an aromatic oasis--and it was open. No latte ever tasted as good, especially with one of those big, creamy banana-nut muffins. I began reconsidering my relationship with Starbucks.

Things warmed up even more when I got off a plane from Frankfurt and fell into the welcoming arms of a lavishly proportioned Starbucks in the heart of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Where I needed it to be. And that's part of the charm: Starbucks is always exactly where you want it to be. Last summer, for instance, an iced latte in a strategically placed Philadelphia Starbucks saved me from death by humidity.

This summer, I fell deeply in love with this evolving empire of coffee. In downtown Palm Springs, Starbucks devotees fill the sidewalk with a blaze of designer linen, deeply tanned skin and cell phones. In Pacific Palisades, Starbucks holds down one end of a frothy pink deco building--a former water works--catering to mixed generations of beautiful people who need a fix before aiming the family Mercedes toward Malibu. In San Diego, my seventysomething mom introduced me to cool frappuccino drinks at her favorite Starbucks tucked into a Barnes & Noble the size of the Vatican.

By the time we made our journey to the East Coast last month, Starbucks had been hardwired into our internal search engines. The Bermuda Triangle that is Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware is abundantly stocked with Dunkin' Donuts, Wawa Markets and diners momentarily refurbished with aluminum siding. There is no actual coffee here--there is only brown water. So it was with squeals of delight and relief that we spied a corner Starbucks in the tiny burg of Morristown, N.J. Iced cappuccinos were our Starbucks drink of choice as we cruised the mid-Atlantic, rental-car air conditioner on full blast. In fact, our visit had been baptized by Starbucks even before we set foot in Newark. Changing planes in Phoenix, we cruised the faux Native American halls of Terminal C anxious, but not hopeful, for a bracing cup of java. Wedged between the baggage-claim sign and a women's restroom, it twinkled at us. Starbucks. We bolted for it, barely outrunning elderly folks in shorts and gold lamé loafers. Ah, those iced cappuccinos.

That's the secret.

Starbucks has great coffee. We didn't want it to. We wanted empirical evidence to back up our rejection of what looked like just another exploitative chain. What we got was great coffee. Rich, hot, perfectly made. And that's the other thing. Consistency. So fine-tuned is the quality and quantity control here that a trainee in suburban Spokane can produce a macchiato every bit as satisfying as a veteran barista in Manhattan. The latte in the Tampa Airport tasted exactly like the one in Campbell. And in D.C. Or San Francisco.

Starbucks not only moves into the heart of its neighborhoods, it finds landmark treasures to resuscitate. The Annapolis Starbucks is housed on the historic old harbor; you can sip that latte grande overlooking the colonial waterfront. The Starbucks in Doylestown, in drop-dead picturesque Bucks County, Pa., brought us to our knees.

Aiming the rental car roughly in the direction of "downtown" Doylestown, we cruised this hotbed of Georgian architecture looking for coffee. There was Starbucks, occupying a 250-year-old former roadhouse and inn. Like the U.S. military, Starbucks has an unerring nose for prime location. Historic buildings, prominent retail sites, the busiest and most scenic corners. You'll find Starbucks there.

The name says it all. Star. Bucks. Heavenly bodies that shimmer in the sky. Money, serious money, lots of money. Combine these two concepts and you've got the American dream with extra foam.

Starbucks. Megabucks is more like it. Thanks to a gleam in the entrepreneurial eye of owner Howard Schultz, the Seattle conglomerate has grown from a sleepy bean concession in Pike Place Market to an international force of 2,200 retail stores and more than $1 billion in sales annually. Starbucks coffeehouses, designer outposts of caffeinated civilization in otherwise bleak suburban malls, have been in existence a mere 11 years, going from a handful of cafes in the Pacific Northwest to high-powered alliances with United Airlines, Barnes & Noble, the Japanese government and every airport worth the name.

I am sobered by the success of Starbucks. I'm mad for that clear and delicious jolt. I love the fact that it satisfies my expectations. I love it for giving consistent finesse to the last remaining legal addiction in the known world. Speechless with admiration, I can only raise high my cup--double latte, extra foam--in tribute.

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From the August 5-11, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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