Saturday, August 20, 2005

Defending Starbucks

I've recently taken to listening to a couple podcasts. One of them is the Feast of Fools, a humorous (often hysterical) show by a Chicago gay couple.

Anyway, this episode brought up the topic of Starbucks (as in the coffee place). Apparently, the Concerned Women of America wants to boycott Starbucks because of a gay-positive quote from the author Armistad Maupin on the side of some of the coffee cups.

Anyway, this post isn't really about that part. The boycott is silly, and is unlikely to make a difference to Starbucks. In my mind, of course, that is a good thing.

During the conversation, one of them -- maybe Fausto, I'm not sure -- commented that this was funny because it now both the right and the left hate Starbucks -- the right because of this silly coffee cup issue, and the left because they are a huge, horrible corporation. Or something like that. I have heard this bit about the left "hating Starbucks" and frankly, I've never understood it.

If you don't like the taste of the coffee ("burnt" or just too strong), then fine, that is a valid reason to dislike Starbucks. All their coffee is dark roast, so you gotta like dark roast to like it. I admit I've become a coffee snob and I only like sufficiently strong coffee. I remember last November we drove out to Montana and drank hardly any coffee in the entire state of North Dakota. At all the places we stopped, it was so weak it tasted like brown-colored water. Fortunately, Montana has excellent coffee (and most of it is not Starbucks, incidentally)

But I don't understand why generally "progressive" people would dislike Starbucks. Full disclosure: Laura worked for Starbucks in Chicago (at various stores) for about 3-4 years as a low-level Barista. That's the person behind the counter who slings the coffee at you, then mops the floors and cleans the espresso machine during the slow times. She did become a supervisor for a short time before leaving, but lets be clear here -- she was not any sort of executive here.

Starbucks does all the things that I would think progressive people would like. They may be large, like Walmart, but their corporate philosophy and behavior are nothing like Walmart's:
  • Starbucks entry-level wages usually start well above minimum wage. No, they don't pay baristas huge salaries. But they do pay better wages than other comparable food service and retail jobs. I am taking Laura's word on this, as she worked at a number of retail jobs before Starbucks.

  • Health benefits. Starbucks provides full health benefits for part-time employees, not just full-time people. I believe this was the first job Laura ever had that paid health benefits. While she was working there, I left a Large Accounting Firm and went to a Small Software Company where we had benefits, but not as comprehensive as Laura's Starbucks benefits. Incidentally, Laura's pseudotumor episode happened while she worked there, and if it wasn't for those benefits, we'd probably still be in debt due to the hospital stays, MRIs, and spinal taps.

  • Domestic partner benefits. Starbucks has provided benefits to partners of gay employees for a very long time. Laura started working there in, I believe, 1996 and this benefit was fairly well-entrenched. I realize this has become much more common in recent years (thankfully!), but Starbucks was there early on. For a few years there, I was on Laura's dental insurance until my company got around to adding those benefits as well. My own cool, small software company didn't get around to adding domestic partner benefits until around 2001.

  • They support progressive causes. Hence, the gripes from the Concerned Women of America.

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Starbucks does make an effort to treat the coffee farmers well and pay them fairly for their beans. Go take a look at the Corporate Social Responsibility Annual Report. Incidentally, do all corporations produce such reports? I've never heard of such a thing.
Does Starbucks make a ton of money selling you overpriced coffee? Yes, they make a profit. But they could probably make much more profit if they shafted the coffee growers and paid employees minimum wage and reserved health benefits for the upper echelons of management. If anyone has any evidence of Starbucks doing such things, please let me know, because all the info I'm finding online suggests that Starbucks is operating exactly the way a progressive person would want them to.

Heck, if you don't believe what Starbucks says about themselves, then take a look at this list of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens, complied by Business Ethics. Yes, Starbucks is on it, and has been all five years the list has been in existence. Here is how Business Ethics explains what they're looking for in their list:
"While traditional measures of success focus on stockholder return, this list defines success more broadly. Using social ratings compiled by KLD Research & Analytics of Boston -- plus total return to shareholders -- our list ranks companies according to service to seven stakeholder groups: stockholders, community, minorities and women, employees, environment, non-U.S. stakeholders, and customers. Good corporate citizens serve all constituencies well. That’s the emerging definition of corporate success."
Sounds like a progressive's dream come true to me. Big business with a conscience!

Employee relations and coffee growers aside, the other big complaint against Starbucks is that they drive out more interesting local coffee shops. There is some truth to this, although again the complaint does not quite make sense.

When Walmart comes into a town, they can offer the same goods as local businesses at significantly lower prices. Hence, the local shops lose customers.

When Starbucks comes into a town, do they undercut existing businesses in the same way? Given that everyone complains about the high price of Starbucks coffee, I think the answer here is no. They don't necessarily charge less than the local coffee shops. Most likely they charge more. So how exactly do they drive out the local places?

The only answer I can find is that people start going to Starbucks anyway. And then they complain about it.

I recall a conversation with a co-worker a few years ago. She liked the Starbucks in Naperville because the baristas recognized her and remembered her preferences each day. When Laura worked at Starbucks, she worked in a very fast-paced store in downtown Chicago that was frequented by hyped-up stock traders and others on their way to high-pressure jobs. Many of these customers were regulars and Laura or one of the other employees would recognize the regulars and start making their drinks when they walked in the door. Sounds more like a friendly local place than the soulless, faceless, fast-food corporate hell critics like to describe!

Well, enough defense of Starbucks -- I need to get ready for my Missoula trip! I plan on drinking lots of great coffee while I'm there, most likely from local, downtown coffee shops.


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