As much as it is derided for being a beacon of capitalist culture takeover, in times of chaos, I am grateful for the global uniformity of multinational brands
People love to criticise Starbucks. Usually, I’m one of them.
Today, however, I sat nursing an Americano which felt like the last barrier between me and a flood of tears.
I was on my own in a strange city in western China, bone-tired and homesick. My legs still hurt from a bike crash two days previously, and I had just been told that said bike, which I loved like a child and which had carried me more than two thousand miles over the past 3 years, was most likely irreparably damaged.
My travel plans were disrupted, my body was in pain, and I had no one to talk to. I doubted there was even anyone in this city that spoke more than a few words of English.
It was in this chaotic and upsetting state of limbo that I decided I needed a coffee.
The Green Mermaid
The amount of gratitude I felt for the familiar menu and perfectly predictable taste of this mug of coffee, whose order I have memorised, got me thinking about how justified the common disdain for Starbucks coffeehouses is.
Their predictable sameness, alleged lack of quality, and more than anything their inescapable presence can seem to embody everything wrong with capitalist culture: the barging in of a multinational giant who has unfair access to lower prices, stealing market share from independent cafes and blandly homogenising city after city across the world.
As of 2020, global branch numbers have surpassed 30,500 across 80 countries. Some locations defy belief. From Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to the Great Wall of China, the familiar stamp of the green mermaid silently touts the triumph of Big Business over all, a sort of monument to the power of profit. The result of placing a cheerful corporate logo next to ancient cultural relics or well-known sites of torture is jarring, and more than a little depressing.
But, I thought as I cradled my cup of generic, dark-roasted capitalist warmth, crassness aside, surely there is more reason to love these places than hate them.
Have you ever seen an empty Starbucks?
First, there’s the cold economics of undeniable demand. Think hard – have you ever seen an empty Starbucks? Forbes reported two years ago that Starbucks makes location choices using enormous data sets and behaviour-predicting AI, researching profitable, high-traffic areas. They don’t put a store somewhere they’re not pretty sure they’ll be welcomed with open arms. With so much demand, can you really say that they’re doing something bad?
Socially, a Starbucks is also a seal of gentrification. They lend an air of elitism (or at least mild importance) to any area they appear in, as well as providing a prestigious name for their baristas’ CVs, and a clean, WiFi-enabled work or meeting space for out-of-office workers.
It’s true that gentrification has losers. It raises rents and changes the aesthetic of an area in a way that not everyone likes. There’s a reason, though, that it happens: because enough people want it to. Starbucks provides many services that smaller places cannot. Locking the world’s biggest coffee shop out of an area feels similar to a teacher refusing to switch from a blackboard to a computer because it’s just not what they’re used to.
The same, but different
It’s unsettling to walk into a Starbucks in Beijing and have it be almost identical to one in London, but you can’t deny that it’s an incredible feat of coordination.
What about cultural differences? What about the ideological, religious, historic, geographical chasms that separate somewhere like Abu Dhabi from somewhere like Hawaii? How can it possibly be a good thing that these historically completely separate places are morphing into one?
They’re actually not completely uniform. It’s widely documented that one of the keys to Starbucks’ success is that their products are localised, with tea drinks taking up far more space in the menu in China than in the US, for example, and Oolong mooncakes not being sold in Miami.
The things that are the same, however, are the things that urban humans in every country want: a clean and attractive environment; soft music; an internet connection; status-symbol beverages with their name written on. Starbucks, Inc. is just best poised to provide these things at a consistent level of quality, and in prime locations.
A good creepy
It’s overly simplistic to equate the presence of a Starbucks with every city becoming like every other, I told myself as I sipped from my pleasingly heavy mug, identical to the one I drank my very first Starbucks coffee from in the UK ten years ago.
There are enough of the same things to make the experience warmly familiar and emotionally comforting. It was that familiarity, that sameness, which was what stopped my tears when I felt frustrated and alone in a strange place. Without having to think, I knew what to order, where to wait, and what it would taste like.
In that chaotic moment, when I felt completely powerless and as if one more forced conversation in Mandarin about where I was from and what I was doing here would crack my fragile veneer of sanity, I was highly grateful for that predictability.
This Starbucks, one of thirty thousand, had made me feel at home.
You could see that as a creepy testament to the power corporations have over our lives and emotions. Or, you could see it as a gift of the modern world, to be able to make you feel as if you’re in known territory, no matter how far you are from home. Today, I choose the latter.