Reopening . . . One Step At A Time (Cont.)

And speaking of reopening, our neighborhood Starbucks is reopening this morning after weeks of shutdown. I walked by before the official opening and the coffee emporium was ready to go with designated lines, signage, ground tape to show proper social distances, and masked baristas.

I never thought I would say I was glad to see a Starbucks open, but I was. These are extraordinary times, indeed.

Franchise Free

One of the great things about Stonington, Maine is that it’s far off the beaten path.  So far, in fact, that it’s totally franchise-free.  You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks here.  In fact, you’d have to drive dozens of miles into the mainland before you hit your first  franchise fast food restaurant or coffee shop.

Located at the tip of Deer Isle, out in the middle of Penobscot Bay, Stonington is just too small and too remote for the big franchise chains.  That means if you’ve got to start your day with some kind of Starbucks brand caramel-topped pumpkin spice latte grande, this just isn’t the place for you.  (It also means that you won’t find a discarded Starbucks coffee cup or a McDonald’s wrapper around town, either.)

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That doesn’t mean that Stonington lacks for coffee or the other amenities of modern life.  Instead, locally owned businesses have filled the niche that would otherwise be filled by the big chains.  There’s a great coffee shop called 44 North where you can get your java fix, and there are really good restaurants, ranging from the classic home-cooked offerings offered at the Harbor Cafe (pictured above, where the haddock chowder is addictive and you have to save room for dessert) and Stonecutters Kitchen and the Fin and Fern to the more high-end fare found at Acadia House Provisions and Aragosta.  The other businesses in town are locally owned, too — and some of them are employee-owned co-ops.

The local ownership adds a certain indefinable quality to the buying experience.  There are signs around the island noting that buying from local businesses means local jobs, and that’s clearly the case.  It actually makes you want to shop at the local options and support the local economy, in a way that just doesn’t apply to stopping at a national chain operation.

It’s all a pretty old school approach.  There’s nothing wrong with the big companies and their franchises, of course, but it’s nice to be reminded of what America was like before large-scale national brands took hold and unique local businesses lined the sidewalks along Main Street.

The Lot Of The Working Stiff

Starbucks is embroiled in protests in Philadelphia due to an incident in one of its stores.  As CNN reports it, two African-American men initially initially asked to use the restroom inside the store “but were told the cafe’s bathrooms were for customers only. They then occupied a table without making a purchase, which many observers have noted is a common occurrence at the franchise’s locations.  A manager called police after the men declined to leave the premises because, they said, they were waiting for an acquaintance.”  Police then took the men out of the building, and the men were detained.

The incident has provoked outrage and resulted in a sit-in, other protests, and lots of criticism of Starbucks, and the manager who called the police is no longer working at the location in question.  Starbucks CEO has apologized, and Starbucks has announced that every one of its 8,000 stores in the U.S. will close the afternoon of May 29 to “conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores.”

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But this post isn’t about the unfortunate incident, the protests, or Starbucks’ response to the incident.  Instead, it’s about one picture taken during the protests, which appears at left — a photo of a Starbucks employee behind the counter at the store, wearing bright green Starbucks garb with “Zack” written on his apron, staring stolidly ahead while facing a protester with a bullhorn who is standing about three feet away.  That one picture, to me, aptly illustrates the lot of the working stiff.  Zack, the order-taking counter guy, isn’t the CEO of Starbucks, or the manager who made the decision to call the police, and we don’t know whether he was even in the store when the incident occurred.  But when things go south and the corporate crap hits the fan, it’s the little guys like Zack who show up for work and get sent out to face the music — and in this case, the bullhorn.

I’ve never had jobs where I had to deal with sit-ins and protesters using bullhorns, but I expect many of us have had jobs where we were the minimum-wage workers who had to deal with the red-faced customers who were angry about a decision we didn’t make.  And if you’ve had such a job, you suspect you know exactly what Zack was thinking at the moment the above photo was taken:  he’s thinking that the pay he’s getting just isn’t worth it, he’s wondering how long it is until his shift ends, and he’s trying to get to his mental happy place.  We’ve all been there.

And it also makes you wonder:  wouldn’t it be interesting to see how CEOs and high-level executives would deal with the bullhorn scenario?

Bad Flavors

Every morning I walk past a Starbucks, and every morning I groan at the latest disaster that has been concocted in the “flavored coffee” category.  Ii think any form of flavored coffee is bad enough, but the current offering of “maple pecan latte,” which apparently comes with colorful sprinkles on the foam when served hot, sounds like a truly tooth-curdling combination.

Somewhere there is a Starbucks food sciences laboratory that is charged with coming up with some new flavor to entice patrons back into the coffee shop for a new slug of joe.  Their job is becoming increasingly difficult, because the available seasonal “flavor palette” is limited due to the strong taste of coffee itself and the fact that the really desirable flavors, like chocolate, are permanently featured on the menu because Starbucks patrons want to savor them year-round.  And, the flavor scientists have obviously exhausted virtually every combination that includes pumpkin as an element; for years, Starbucks marked the arrival of September with some new pumpkin spice concoction.  But the pumpkin well has apparently run dry, and it’s time to move on to other flavors that evoke the arrival of fall.  Apparently, maple pecan is the best they can come up with.

The maple flavor is good on pancakes and waffles, of course, and you can even make a reasonable argument for maple flavoring in oatmeal — although if somebody heats up maple-flavored instant oatmeal in the office microwave, you’ll be smelling it, and regretting it, for hours.  But a cup of maple and pecan-flavored coffee sounds like a treacly catastrophe, like drinking a hearty cup of steamed syrup with nuts in it.  It would take hours of water-guzzling to finally rinse the flavor out of your mouth.

What’s next in the bizarro world of Starbucks fall flavors?  Butternut squash latte?  Hey, how about a turkey and cranberry dressing frappucino?

Remodeling A Starbucks 

They’re remodeling a Starbucks near our house.  There’s a dumpster out front filled with a bunch of debris that’s been removed from the store, and a trailer that apparently houses tools and remodeling accoutrements, and the baristas and loyal Starbucks patrons are jockeying for position amidst the ongoing work and materials — because coffee consumption obviously can’t be sidetracked by mere remodeling efforts.

It got me to wondering, though:  how, exactly, do you “remodel” a Starbucks location?

I mean, really remodel.  Because every Starbucks I’ve ever been in — and for that matter, every coffee house I’ve ever been in — has pretty much the same kind of decor.  The layout might differ, but in terms of look and feel they’re incredibly generic, no matter whether you’re in New York City or Podunk Gap.  Along with the odor and sound of ground coffee, you can expect to find basic lighting, some overstuffed armchairs occupied by people checking their smartphones as they sip their cold brews, a few table and chair sets where somebody is tapping on a laptop while listening to music, and utterly forgettable wall art that typically consists of large black-and-white photographs of coffee beans or coffee bean bags or growing coffee plants or coffee warehouses.  Starbucks and coffee houses aren’t exactly triumphs of bold interior decorating.

So what are they going to do in this “remodeling”?  Move the comfortable chairs to different positions or change their colors?  Reconfigure the tables?  Replace the old bland coffee-themed art with new bland coffee-themed art?  I’m not sure that Starbucks patrons would welcome bright colors or radical furnishings or “accent pieces” that they might stumble into during that early morning, bleary-eyed run for the first cup of Joe.  But then again, they might not even notice the changes, because coffee house customers tend to be pretty self-absorbed when they’re retrieving their lattes.

 

Logan Airport, 5:07 a.m.

At 5:07 a.m. at Logan Airport in Boston, where red-eye flights have just dropped off their loads of bleary-eyed cross-country travelers, the lines at Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are long.  As the would-be customers try to clear their heads and vow to never, ever take a red-eye flight again, their very willingness to wait in line testifies that a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee is just what is needed to kick-start the morning and make the bedraggled traveler feel a little bit less like a grit.

Siccing The Cops On Scofflaws

There’s a Starbucks on a street corner near our house.  It’s a busy place in the morning, and it doesn’t have its own parking lot, although there is an available lot only a hundred feet or so away.  I walk past the Starbucks every morning at about 6 a.m. on my outbound early morning jaunt, and walk past it again at about 6:30 on my return home.

By then, inevitably, there are extremely important people who have parked illegally right in front of the store, so they can dash in to get their morning Starbucks fix without having to wait an instant longer, walk a few steps after parking in the available lot, or comply with posted parking signs like the rest of us average folks.  And they’re not just parking in a legitimate spot that requires a special sticker, either.  No, they’re leaving their cars in clearly posted “No Stopping” zones, where their cars block the crosswalk, meaning anyone walking by has to squeeze between parked cars — which isn’t very safe when people are driving in and out, like at a Starbucks — and anyone who happened to be using a wheelchair, walker, or stroller would be totally out of luck because the curb cut and incline are totally blocked.  And, also inevitably, these self-absorbed illegal parkers who can’t spare an extra minute of their time then put their car in reverse, in the process going the wrong way on a one-way street, and back out onto Third Street before going on their merry way.  In the process, they pay no attention to anybody who might be crossing the street behind them.

This who scenario bugs the crap out of me (obviously), and I’ve had to restrain myself from saying something to these scofflaws when they happen to leave the Starbucks as I am walking by.  Last week I thought we had reached the nadir of lawful compliance in our society when somebody parked in the no stopping zone — immediately behind a police car that was parked legally!  Talk about chutzpah!  And I toyed with the idea of actually calling the police to see if they could send out somebody to ticket a few of these selfish people and remind them that the parking laws apply to them, too.  But I restrained myself, trying to adopt a “live and let live” attitude.

This week, though, a police office magically appeared at the Starbucks corner at just the right time and wrote tickets for every illegally parked car.  I actually patted the guy on the shoulder and thanked him for doing something to promote pedestrian safety and take a step to advance the “broken windows” theory in our neighborhood.  I didn’t summon him, but somebody did — and I was glad.

I hope the illegal parkers enjoyed reading their tickets as they savored their triple caramel latte and thought about their enormous importance.

 

Tiny Door

IMG_0765Kish and I were out taking Kasey for a walk, and she wanted to stop in at the Starbucks at Third and Sycamore to pick up a copy of the Sunday New York Times.  While I waited outside with Kasey, who was nosing around close to the ground as dogs are wont to do, I noticed that she was snuffling around . . . a tiny door in the concrete, right at the base of the building?  With a tiny crescent moon-eyed doormat, next to a tiny window?

What the heck?  There’s probably some significant message to the “covert” inside a heart with lightning bolts, in lurid pink and blue, or maybe its part of some urban art project, but if so I sure don’t know what it is.  I just thought it was pretty cool.

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To Tip, Or Not To Tip

Lately, it just seems like they are inventing new jobs that create impossible “tip, or don’t tip” scenarios.

IMG_6557Consider the guy who drives the shuttle bus from the long-term parking lot or the rental car office to the airport terminal.  He’s piloting a vehicle that you’re riding in, so he’s sort of like a cab driver.  He’s often lifting luggage and putting it on the inside racks, so he’s sort of like a doorman or bellhop.  Yet most people don’t give a thought to giving the shuttle bus driver a tip, whereas the cabbie, the doorman, and the bellhop all expect to get a gratuity.  Why?

The shuttle bus driver isn’t alone.  What about the folks who work at a cafeteria-like food line who have a jar with “tips” written on it by the cash register?  Are you really supposed to tip them?  I’m not saying their job is unimportant or unappreciated, but after all, they’re not coming to your table to take your order, drop off food, or clear off plates, they’re just spooning your grub into a styrofoam “to go” container.  Why, exactly, do they deserve a tip any more than the dishwasher or cook does?

What about the guys at the “genius” bar at the Apple store?  If they quickly fix your computer so you don’t need to buy a new one, is a tip in order?  What about the friendly kid behind the counter at Starbuck’s who remembers that you always get a grande with a double shot of espresso and caramel?  What about the woman who grooms your dog, or the service technician at the car dealership, or the guy who comes out to hook up your internet or fix the furnace?  When are you supposed to tip, and when not?  Is it all just convention and tradition, or is there something more to it?

The only tipping situation that makes perfectly good sense to me is the hair stylist.  She’s flitting around your head with sharp scissors or, in some instances, a razor, positioned just inches away from the jugular vein.  Of course you want to stay on her good side.  A few extra bucks to keep the stylist happy, and uninclined to plunge a sharp implement into the side of your neck, seems like a wise decision to me.  The rest is a mystery.

The Starbucks Effect

Often you see news stories that combine odd facts and statistics, and you wonder:  is the story reporting causation, or just correlation?

Consider the so-called “Starbucks Effect.”

If you’ve bought a house recently, you’ve probably used Zillow, a real estate website that provides lots of useful information about houses on the market with just a few keystrokes.    Zillow’s CEO and its chief economist, Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries, wrote a book called Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate that addresses the economics of home buying and home owning and attempts to answer questions that have long bedeviled home owners — like, should I remodel my kitchen, or my bathroom?

One chapter addresses the “Starbucks Effect.”  After crunching the numbers, they found that homes located near a Starbucks appreciated far more than homes located farther away.  From 1997 to 2014, houses in a Starbucks zone increased 96 percent, versus 65 percent for Starbucks-deprived residences.  And the closer to that green sign the better:  in five years, houses within a quarter-mile of a Starbucks went up 21 percent while houses a quarter-mile to a half-mile away increased only 17 percent.  (If you live in one of 20 large American cities, you can track the specific “Starbucks Effect” in your home town here.  Unfortunately, Columbus isn’t one of the 20.)

So, is this quirky statistic reflective of causation, or correlation?  Rascoff and Humphries conclude that a neighborhood Starbucks does drive up home prices, although they’re not sure exactly why.  Perhaps people equate a Starbucks with neighborhoods that are safe, monied, and thriving, or perhaps they really like the convenience of walking only a few blocks for their morning brew, or perhaps a nearby Starbucks makes them feel like urban hipsters.  Others wonder if the statistics are simply showing a correlation, because Starbucks must carefully analyze the economic conditions at potential locations for its stores.  In short, Starbucks isn’t going to try to peddle high-end lattes and frappucinos on Skid Row, and therefore it’s not surprising to see Starbucks ‘hoods outperform others.

It’s a chicken-and-egg type argument:  which came first, rising home prices or the Starbucks?  Some questions are unaswerable, and this is probably one of them.  I’m happy to report that we live very close to a Starbucks, although its presence had nothing to do with our decision to buy our house.  After reading about the “Starbucks Effect,” though, I’m hoping that it never closes.

A Three Starbucks Stroll

How much coffee do the people of Columbus, Ohio drink, anyway?

IMG_4533My new walking path to work heads straight down South Third Street, from German Village to downtown Columbus.  It’s a pleasant walk of about a mile and a half, past churches, hotels, the Ohio Statehouse . . . and three Starbucks.  Three, in such a short distance!  And there are other, independent coffee houses like Stauf’s sprinkled in along the way, too.  If you wanted, you could easily buy your steaming hot cup of triple latte grande with whipped cream, drink it, get multiple refills along the way, and end up in the office with a groaning bladder and a head buzzing with caffeine and sugar.

Starbucks are ubiquitous in our culture, like McDonald’s was years ago when there seemed to be a Golden Arches at every intersection.  But many of those McDonald’s outlets ultimately closed, either due to overkill, or Big Mac fatigue, or America’s innate interest in always moving on to the Next Big Thing.  You wonder how many of the Starbuck’s that now dot the landscape will survive, and when the current fixation with jazzed-up, flavored coffee will end and be replaced by . . . who knows what?

At Brooklyn Bridge Park

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If you walk from Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge to lower Manhattan, you will find the Brooklyn Bridge Park at the end of your journey. With its worn and comfortable benches, its shady vistas, and its beautiful fountain, it’s a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee on a cool and bright autumn morning. Fortunately, there’s a Starbucks nearby, ready to fill that need. (Isn’t there always?)

Flavored Coffee Follies

Office coffee should be . . . well . . . office coffee.  People shouldn’t be expecting Starbucks quality, or Starbucks flavor.

Office workers aren’t like the people in a coffee commercial, having deep, meaningful conversations over their steaming mug of cafe au lait.  Instead, they just want to slug back a potable shot of caffeine at their desks to help them stay awake and alert during the work day.

So why is there this push on to foist flavored coffee on those of us who are used to the basic swill?  At our office, they are always experimenting with new flavors that bring unwelcome smells to the coffee station.  One day recently, for example, they were brewing some kind of cinnamon-scented blend.  Cinnamon-flavored coffee?  Hey, folks . . . this isn’t Morocco, nor is it the North Pole.  I don’t need my cup of joe to smell like a Christmas cookie or pumpkin pie.  The same goes for chocolate-flavored coffee, or any of the other spiced-up concoctions that the coffee sellers are peddling.

Office coffee is, by definition, an institutional beverage.  It is, or should be, basic no-frills stuff.   Can’t we just leave it that way?

The Sad Decline Of Office Coffee Consumption

Yesterday at the office I went to get a cup of coffee at about 9 a.m. and saw, to my slight surprise, that the pot I had made an hour or so earlier had remained untouched by any other person on the floor.  It brought home the fact that fewer and fewer people, at our firm at least, drink coffee brewed at the coffee stations on their floors.

When I started at the firm, my office was on a floor of serious coffee junkies.  The rule was that you brewed a pot if you were the first person in to the office in the morning, and woe betide the individual who left a mostly empty pot on the burner so that the remnants would turn first to thick sludge and then to a rock hard coating on the bottom of the pot.  Our three-burner coffee station was kept working from morning to night and people guzzled coffee throughout the workday.  The office coffee matrons sprinted from floor to floor to stay up with the overwhelming demand.  Even at 6 or 7 p.m. there was a fresh pot ready to be consumed by the lawyer cranking out a brief or putting finishing touches on a deal.

No more.  Now, pots of coffee get brewed and then barely get touched, and fewer and fewer pots get brewed in the first place.  I still drink the “firm coffee,” and I feel like an endangered species.  I’m not sure that there is anyone else on the floor who drinks more than a half cup a day.

Why is that?  Some of it may be health concerns; I seem to recall hectoring news stories saying that drinking too much coffee (like overconsumption of just about everything) is bad for you.  I have noticed more people walking around with water bottles or energy drinks or cans of Coke.  I also see people sauntering by with Starbucks cups, so no doubt some folks have stopped drinking firm coffee with the rise, on every corner, of tony coffee shops that offer expensive, sugary concoctions.  The simple unflavored black coffee offered at the firm may just be fighting a losing battle against the appalling coffee snobbery that is sweeping the nation.

These kinds of minor social changes are interesting and inevitable in ever-changing modern America.  Still, I miss the old days, when the fourth floor of the 68 building was proud of its robust coffee consumption and it was commonplace to meet a fellow lawyer at the coffee station and have a quick chat as you each poured the next cup of joe.