Stir it up
Taylor Clark tells Mark Robertson that his book about Starbucks was not intended as an assault. That in itself has caused a storm in a coffee cup
Full fat? Half fat? Skinny? A shot of eggnog syrup maybe? Since the coffee house revolution of the 1990s, your morning cup comes in an endless myriad of permutations. It wasn’t always like this of course, there was a time PS (Pre Starbucks) that coffee came in a jar with a plastic lid which you necked down before it brought tears to your eyes. Coffee in Britain was so bad we needed tea, of all things, for some kind of liquid sustenance. Since then we’ve been well and truly Starbucked.
Contemporary coffee culture as we know it – coffee houses on every corner and shelling out pounds for a paper cup full of something that essentially costs pennies – didn’t start with Starbucks, as Taylor Clark points out in his insightful, witty and considered Starbucked. The Seattle chain just took it global. Which surely makes them an evil corporate empire, no? ‘I wrote a cover story for the Portland free sheet Willmette Weekly after somebody tried, and failed, to throw fire bombs through the window of a new branch of Starbucks,’ explains Clark. ‘The story asked if Starbucks was as bad as its detractors made it out to be. I looked into it and found that they weren’t. The story attracted interest so I was contacted by some editors and we turned it into a book.’
Clark not only portrays the inexorable rise of this multi-national from a giddy yet ambitious independent store to one of the world’s most recognisable consumer brands, but details the brand’s uniqueness and insists that no one has managed to replicate their peculiar business model. ‘Companies like Wal-Mart are famous for sucking the life out of independent retail everywhere,’ says Clark. ‘I was pretty surprised, however, to find that in the US, mom and pop coffee houses were not being put out of business; in fact, Starbucks was helping them by creating a greater interest in the product.’
Clark has successfully struck a balance between factual exposition and a healthy sense of humour to produce an eminently readable slice of contemporary folklore that’s part social history lesson, part cultural study of addiction with a dash of real life adventure. Steering away from the haranguing stances of Naomi Klein or Michael Moore, he lays out the story, marvelling at it in all its absurd glory and allowing the reader to formulate their own conclusions. ‘It would have been easy to write a very businessy sort of book but I feel one of the cardinal sins of writing is not entertaining people.’ says Clark. ‘I’ve read reviews from people who thought that I did a really poor job of making a case against Starbucks, but I wasn’t making a case against them. I was just trying to tell this story and there are people who have been annoyed that I didn’t give away the secret behind Starbucks and tell them how they can apply it to their own company. There isn’t one, and that wasn’t what I was trying to do anyway.’
Ultimately, being a Starbucks customer is a personal choice based on finance, morals and taste, but he manages to show this without passing judgement on our consumerist urges. There’s no bad guys or good guys in this business it would seem, just thirsty ones.
Starbucked is out now published by Sceptre.