Sunday, July 23, 2006

Embracing the enemy.

Today I find myself in the peculiar position of having to decide between two very unlikely subjects for this blog. I realize that the small base of readers that come here have come to expect a certain perspective from me, and I fear that in making this choice I will alienate people. It's a no-win situation, but I feel like I'd be letting myself off the hook if I avoided it. So my options as I see them are either to write an entry about Christian conversion or an apologia for Starbuck's. I've chosen the latter.

I would assume that it doesn't take long for people that meet me to discern that I am politically progressive. Along with this flavor of belief, I mix in a hearty portion of anti-corporate rhetoric. I am no fan of the attack on regionalism that our homogenized corporate culture presents. That has been a decisive factor in my long-standing refusal to reconcile my taste for Starbucks' product with my contempt for their predatory business model. I've had friends who have struggled to create independent coffee shops, carving a niche in their respective communities through their efforts and creativity. Each one of these shops has had to contend with a Starbucks franchise opening up in the markets they have worked so diligently to develop. To be truthful, I have to point out that my friends' stores have not suffered greatly due to the increased competition represented by these Starbucks cafes. In fact my favorite coffeeshop has increased to three times its original size in the interim. To some extent that enables me to hold my current views on the Starbucks chain.

I began stopping at these franchises out of necessity. I can't drink ordinary brewed coffee due to its acidic qualities. But I can drink espresso. I have subjected multiple baristas to my drink of choice: a large iced mocha with caramel drizzle, skim milk, and half the amount of ice (no whipped cream). Anyone that has ever traversed the PA turnpike knows well the stranglehold Starbucks has on the wary traveler seeking a much-needed caffeine energy-burst. So I had no choice. Really... I didn't.

I always felt guilty for feeding the corporate behemoth. I saw every dollar that I spent as fuel for a viral infection. But over the last few years I have learned some things that have modified my perspective. I learned that Starbucks contibutes 100% of its campaign donations to Democratic candidates (reference: Buy Blue) . I've heard that the company considers its employees to be "partners", and offers them health insurance. In addition they seem to be making an effort to adopt farmer-friendly practices, and integrate "green power" into their operations. They have made promises (yet unfilled) to sincerely promote the use of free-trade coffee.

Indeed many of my friends would find these efforts to be minimal, and a cynical attempt to effectively employ demographic marketing. And they may have a point. The news about this company isn't all positive... their corporate management has tried to discourage their employees from wearing union pins in the workplace, and they have been accused of other activities that could be viewed as anti-union. Of course this is no surprise in the contemporary political climate... less than 14% of the nation's workers are represented by unions (reference: the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). Unfortunately the overall corporate standard is so miserable as to make Starbucks seem downright liberal. Shall I continue to villify a company that does anything (no matter how minimal) that exceeds giving mere lip service to progressive causes? That's a fair question.

But what motivated me to write about this corporation during this most pleasant summer? Why would I want to taint my day this way?

Well... Friday night at 10PM I needed some caffeine to enhance my evening reveries. There was a regional chain accessible and open, but I have had mediocre experiences there in the past. I knew that if there were more than two people in line I would be facing a long wait for my drink. I also had reservations concerning the consistency of the product. In my experience these issues have not been a problem at Starbucks. When I reached the store I noted that it was due to close at 10PM. Checking my watch and seeing that it was 10:05, I fully expected to be turned away... or (at best) served in an impatient and sour manner. This wasn't the case at all. I felt welcome and the servers greeted me as if they were truly happy to see me. This despite the fact that they were in the midst of making labor-intensive slushy drinks for the grumbling patrons ahead of me. My drink was exactly how I anticipated it, and I walked away satisfied with the experience. Today I did something I have never done before... I wrote a letter to the store manager commending the performance of her employees. Does that make me a sell-out? Am I merely getting soft in my advancing years?

I know I risk my credibility as a progressive by writing this. Yet I have to give credit where it is due. I will still choose the locally-owned coffee-shop over Starbucks "nine-times-out-of-ten". But on the rare occasion that I don't... I might not feel quite so shamed.


Anonymous jefg said...

You have made you acceptance of Starbucks known to me in subtle references in the past, and frankly, I was wondering why I wasn't hearing negative vibes (the small firm turned into "evil" big corporate). Thanks for being very specific with your reasons. I too prefer the atmosphere of an indepedent shop over a large chain, whether it be a coffee shop or restaurant, but independnets aren't always around when you'd like one, and some of the big boys just aren't that bad.

I liked that you wrote an acknowledgement. I've probably done that less than a half-dozen times...but doing it has made me feel good. I should do that more often.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Y'know... everyone has biases. It's very difficult to ever see anything clearly. I think it's a noble task to try to minimize biases to those of an experiential nature. The greatest possible danger of a corporation is that it will lose touch with its community. It's just impossible for a large corporation not to do this. The task for this type of corporation is to try to most realistically imagine some sort of "global" community. It's a fool's pursuit to be sure... but there is always the classification of "noble fool".

10:30 PM  
Anonymous DeeA2Z said...

I'm pleased that what you did was write a letter of appreciation about the service received. Where you received it is immaterial. Good service is good service and really good service justifies appreciation.

Jefg has a good point about the independents not always being available when you want something. I personally like to support the local businesses in my community even if the owner is a franchisee of a larger corporation. (As a member of the local Chamber of Commerce I feel it is important to support these owners and as long as I'm spending money I like the money to stay in the area whenever possible.)

I like that you're honest about why you prefer to support independent businesses. I agree with your comments about large corporations losing touch with its community.

I know of at least one example of a larger corporation that manages to support the local communities in which they are located. My Kiwanis Club co-sponsored a 10K Run event with the local harbor foundation on the 4th of July. The Kiwanis Club provided coffee, water, fresh fruit and bagels to all the runners. Noah's bagels (founded in NY) have been extremely generous in their support. This year I garnered over 300 bagles for the cause from the Ventura store and 100 more from the Camarillo store (neither store is located in the city where the race is run). All I needed to do was show up at the store at closing time the 2 days prior to the race. (It's amazing how fresh bagels stay for 2 days when stored in plastic bags.) Here's a company that has never let me down. This year I hit Trader Joe's Markets for a donation. Trader Joe's has locations mostly in the western part of the country. They came through for me with Cliff Power bars. I had all the fruit donated and the chain grocery stores donated gift cards that I used to purchase 7 pounds of cream cheese. We had over 300 runners this year (small by most standards), but this was only the 3rd year and the first year we only had 150 participants. I think these donations are how the corporations keep their "global" neighbors happy. Realisltically, the donations are given mostly to foster better consumer relations within the community. Many companies, however, have a mandatory requirement for their employees to participate in some community volunteer endeavor. I think that's a nice start.

8:10 PM  

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