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.

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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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