New York salesman Howard Schultz turned an anti-capitalist enterprise into the ever-expanding corporate behemoth that it is today. Where is there not a Starbucks today? The challenge to find out where you can get the farthest from the nearest Starbucks was the impetus for this book by author Taylor Clark.
In Starbucked, Clark explores the history of coffee and its culture. Before specialty coffee came along, American coffee consumption had been declining. This caused the Big Four coffee conglomerates to cut costs by buying the cheapest beans possible. Bad beans being bitter, the Big Four sucked that nastiness right out of them and injected the beans with synthetic flavorings. Supermarket brands like MJB, Hills Brothers, and Folgers used a large amount of low-quality “filler” beans called robusta (as opposed to arabica), rendering themselves completely indistinguishable from each other. It was coffee-flavored water. They continued to increase the robusta to arabica ratio because it’s cheaper and consumers never seemed to protest - until they had a really good cup of coffee at their local gourmet coffeehouse. Add to that a time when the disposable income of America was on the rise, along with a general addiction to caffeine, and you’ve got demand for higher quality coffee.
Howard Schultz’s hunger to create the utopian Coffee Experience led to an unparalleled growth of a company whose annual stockholders’ meetings are Standing Room Only, resembling a rock concert more than a droll PowerPoint presentation of facts and figures.
The coffee company with the mermaid siren logo has a real estate department who are experts at pinpointing the best locations, when they aren’t opening up next door to competitors, or to each other. They analyze cities and neighborhoods, going as far as studying oil spots in parking lots to determine where people shop and how often. Their aggressive growth tactics concern their opponents who question the company’s ethical behavior and accuse them of squeezing out mom-and-pop stores, not realizing that, in fact, the mom-and-pop stores have thrived and ridden the wave of the gourmet bean’s popularity precisely because of Starbucks.
Clark’s thorough investigative research and witty but objective prose not only questions the validity of critics and accusers, but armed with statistics, he debunks many myths surrounding the mega coffee chain. Like Oprah, perhaps some people, or companies, can only be praised up to a certain level of success, at which point they are deemed too successful and must therefore be lambasted at every opportunity.
After Clark investigates the ethics of Starbucks compared with those of the big coffee conglomerates, it becomes apparent that we may be blaming the wrong corporation for the plight of coffee growers in Latin America (and the rise of the drug trade in Colombia). This book raises questions like: Does Fair Trade mean higher quality coffee?
It’s hard to imagine that 271 pages about coffee, commerce and culture could be engaging, but Clark’s Starbucked is entertaining, compelling, and educational. He delivers a wealth of information without overwhelming the reader. While it’s a little confusing to understand whether Peet’s or Starbucks came first, and who bought whom, and how they switched names, and which one is the original, that’s probably not the point. Clark set out to discover the relevancy of what good coffee means to Americans and how much we’re willing to pay for the forced utopian Coffee Experience. And what will the rest of the world think of it? And with many thousands of coffeehouses around the globe, when will Starbucks open one in Italy, the country where Howard Schultz had his first euphoric latte, spawning a revolution?
This book is best read with a Grande No-Whip Caramel Frappucino.