Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mike Cope posted this morning on the new Starbucks in the ACU library. I am technologically challenged and I don't know how to insert hyperlinks, but his blog ( is the first one in the list of blogs on the left sidebar. There are nearly 40 comments (thus far), mostly from people who are absolute Starbucks addicts - and many of them extol the virtues of Starbucks in the areas of coffee drinks, atmosphere, etc. (though no one admits to liking the prices).

I tried to comment three times, but the site wouldn't let me. So get ready: here comes a Katie rant.

Starbucks does NOT have the most innovative coffee-drink menu, the best coffee (they burn it - according to a friend of mine who worked there after working at 2 different independents), nor the best atmosphere to hang out. Local coffee shops had a corner on the ambience, the forum for local artists and musicians to flourish, the laid-back community, the safe place for people of all ages AND the wonderful drinks before Starbucks ever came on the scene. (For one thing, the coffee house originated in Prague...not even in America!)

No, I don't drink coffee. Love the smell, but can't stand the taste. (Interestingly, Mike shares my view.) So I suppose I can't vouch for the quality of Starbucks lattes and cups of joe over others. But I CAN vouch for the lack of quality in Starbucks chai, hot chocolate, tea and Italian sodas as compared to those you can get at independent places. The Starbucks stuff is bland. And their chai tastes weird.

Yes, I worked at an independent for two years. The Ground Floor Coffee House in Midland, Texas. Server of at least four varieties of roasted beans shipped from an independent roaster in Lubbock, Texas, and maker/purveyor of the best granitas, Italian sodas (96 different flavors - and you could combine 2 or more to create your own!), rich Ghirardelli hot chocolate, steamers, chai, and build-your-own sandwiches I've ever had. We had three shelves of tea - some 52 blends of black, green, red (rooibos), herbal and even white - and four shelves of flavor syrups, which could go into any of our hot or cold drinks. For the non-hot-tea drinkers, we always had a pitcher of Lipton iced under the counter. As for the sandwiches, we bought the ingredients fresh at least once a week, and there's honestly no substitute for turkey with mustard, provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato on a homemade jalapeno-cheddar roll from Tony's Mexican Bakery, made fresh, sliced in half and microwaved for 22 seconds. Can Starbucks give you that?

Not to mention Friday nights filled with the mostly acoustic and very pleasing LIVE sounds of local (but talented!) bands. We did have the radio or CDs playing most of the time...but it was the stuff we liked, not some piped-in corporate mix. Norah Jones, Caedmon's Call, HEM, Guster, Enya, Sinatra and all kinds of jazz recordings. And brightly painted walls (we painted them ourselves!) hung with vibrant and thought-provoking art by local artists, including Rachel, one of our baristas; the owner's husband, Jeff; and a tall lanky regular named Ryan who bought more cups of hot tea than anyone I've ever known.

And another thing: We knew our regulars. We didn't scrawl their names on the sides of their cups, but we knew them. Steve, for example, would come in a few times a week, always wearing sunglasses (I was shocked one day to see that he had beautiful deep brown eyes), for his 16-oz soy latte with three shots of espresso (they came with two) and two packets of Sugar in the Raw. I'd start making his drink when he walked in the door. I'd do the same for Tim Baker, who came in between 2:00 and 3:00 every afternoon for a 16-oz skinny latte (made with skim milk) with a shot of sugar-free hazelnut syrup. One man, another Steve, liked to empty his sugar packets into the cup before we put the coffee in. David Eiler, known affectionately as "Happy Face" or "Smiley," bought a $1.75 16-oz espresso every day and always slid three dollars across the counter, telling me, "Keep the change." Aaron, a very unusual biker who had mild cerebral palsy, a love for Jesus and an absolute heart of gold, would hobble in (he hurt his leg in a bike wreck two years ago) and ask for his special mug (it had his name on the bottom), drinking the drip coffee we didn't sell. At closing time he would help me take out the trash, then walk me to my car.

The Ground Floor closed its doors on April 30, 2005. We had an all-night GF-style party complete with an espresso-drinking contest, live music for some five hours, floods of customers from age 15 to well into their fifties, and nearly everyone who'd worked there for the past couple of years, all of us rotating behind-the-counter duty. We all loved the tactile and sensory process of making drinks and restocking supplies and even smoothing your hand across a counter to make sure the espresso grounds were all gone. None of us wanted to leave. I was one of the first, and I finally headed home at nearly 4 a.m. Aaron walked me to my car, and I sobbed all the way there.

Now there's no place except Starbucks to get a cup of coffee in Midland. Fortunately, there are several local joints here in Abilene: Mezamiz, the Bean Counter, Third Rock Creamery & Coffee. Thank heaven. In Oxford, there was G&D's - an Oxford-original ice cream shop that also did bagel sandwiches and coffee, and there is now QI (Quite Interesting), which sells wonderful tea and scrumptious ginger cake. Totally local. And last summer in Hawaii, as Scott frequently reminds me, I found another kindred coffee house: Volcano Joe's, across the street from the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii. Mango smoothies, great chai, chilled-out atmosphere and way cool T-shirts. Whenever the team missed the big blue whale of a van, they knew it was a safe bet I'd taken it and driven to Volcano Joe's.

These places are packed with atmosphere - organic, funky, sometimes rough-edged, homegrown, original local flavor. They're not as slick as Starbucks, but they sure feel more like home than it will EVER feel. Support your local coffee house, for goodness' sake. These places are some of the few remaining bastions of rich, relaxed, family-friendly local flavor amid all the franchise fast-food restaurants and national department stores.


Blogger Scott said...

I was going to cheer you on, but I've got my triple grande non-fat no-foam latte in my hands, and I don't want to spill any of it.

I would agree that Starbucks is NOT the best. They are consistent - and there is some value in this, in that one gets a clear idea of what their drink will take like from Minsk to Milan to Minnesota. I think some of us who drink coffee from Starbucks know that while it will not be as good as a great cup of joe from an independent, it will be better than a BAD cup of joe from an independent.

My favorite coffee place - Coffee Talk in Kaimuki (over where we got stopped by the cops on mopeds...the first time...not in waikiki) - they have free internet, GREAT (and authentic) ambiance, phenomenal music, and here's the best part, dang good coffee and tea.

Of course, one of my friends (wink) is partial to Volcano Joes, but I can never find a parking place.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Jacque said...

Preach it, sister! Starbucks is definitely not the best, but I'm not adverse to going inside every now and then and giving them my 2pounds 50 pence. Wow, that's a lot of money in dollars. I've discovered that I like the atmosphere better at the Cafe Nero inside Blackwells....the big windows get me every time. And Nero's has better coffee. But nothing quite compares to QI, or the News Cafe or G&D's for ambiance. One of the best I've been to was a little shop we found in Edinburgh. Fabulous coffee and environment - C & I spent about 3 hours there one morning.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

little cafe in edinburgh? would that be the elephant house? that place is great.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Adam Hedgpeth said...

So Katie, you know I can read, and you know I know how you are about coffee houses....but that is way too much to read. I got your point in the first paragraph, and you are right, and then went back to

But I still love you.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

I love the Elephant House! Though I'm sure that's not the only cafe in Edinburgh. And I also agree with Jacque...QI and G&D's have wonderful ambiance. As do the Bean Counter and Mezamiz here in Abilene.

Adam, I love you too. But please read the rest. It's good stuff. ;)

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there are indeed lots of coffee houses in Edinburgh. Black Medicine was a great one too, right next to blackwells. I dont care much for the atmosphere of Cafe Nero on Rose St though. it's purely an atmoshpere of smoke and noise!

10:49 PM  
Blogger Cole said...

the best cafe in edinborough is The Bean Scene. They were posting on the chalk board that Dar Williams "from the USA" was performing the week after we left. I was distraught. But their drinks were great, as were their sofas.

Re: Starbucks: there is an old business adage that says "you can make a fortune selling a bad cup of coffe as long as it's always bad." Scott is right--it's about consistency.

4:33 AM  
Blogger jack said...

I loved your story and agree heartily. I've just gotten into poetry and coffee and was wondering if you knew another coffee shop in Midland,TX that I could merge these loves...

10:36 AM  

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