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I very much doubt that Howard Schultz—raised in a Brooklyn housing project and winner of a football scholarship to Northern Michigan University—spoke Italian when he first visited Italy.
His coup de cafe came in 1982, a year after he became so enthused about a small Seattle coffee bean store called Starbucks that he convinced its owners to make him director of marketing. Some guys go to Rome and see only the women. Others flip for the Bernini sculptures. Schultz, a missionary of quality coffee, had eyes only for the cafes. With 200,000 of them, Italy was a coffee lover's heaven. And Italians weren't of a "to go" mentality. They sat. And talked.
Schultz had the correct revelation: In Europe, the cafe is the equivalent of America's corner bars. But it isn't just for men, and it's on a completely different plane from establishments that dispense alcohol. The European cafe is the elusive "third place"—the cushion between work and home where "everyone knows your name"—that is a food-and-beverage provider's dream.
This is not to say that European cafes are anything like "Central Perk," the coffee house that was like a second living room for the cast of "Friends." The differences? First, the product. The milk in European cappuccinos tends to be frothed to the consistency of shaving cream. And European cafes don't operate under the odd, uniquely American philosophy that the best way to make "gourmet" coffee is to over-roast the beans.
But the bigger difference between European cafes and anything that's opened in America in the last two decades is... the conversation. In "Friends," the characters talk about their relationships and their charming personal lives. At the Starbucks stores I've visited, most people who have settled in were hunched over their laptops; I could identify the couples because they typed faster and looked around less. In Europe, by contrast, my field research has led me to conclude that work ceases the moment the customer enters the cafe. This place is social. Well, social in a European sense. My French is okay, my Italian almost non-existent, but even a rube can tell these European coffee hounds tend to talk less about intimate or endearing topics—and more about culture and politics.
In recent years, Starbucks—under the continued leadership of Howard Schultz—has chosen a path that seems to be less about "brand extension" than cultural cheerleading. It's moved, one CD at a time, into the music business, selling releases by too-old-for-prime-time musicians and commissioning its own. It has a music channel on XM satellite radio.
No one has put it so bluntly, but when you lump all its non-coffee activities in a single paragraph, Starbucks is rapidly becoming a media company that just happens to sell beverages
And as a media company, its performance has been flawless. Starbucks Media is an intensely curated experience. Its bet is that niches are riches. That people are hungry for authenticity. That the holy grail in modern marketing is the discovery of One Good Thing. That big is bland and choice is overrated and that it's better to sell a few of one just-for-Starbucks CD in 7,000 stores than it is to devote a wall of shelves to a zillion same old same old CDs.
People want an editor, and Starbucks is willing to step up to that responsibility—just as I do at HeadButler.com. But although Starbucks is a publicly traded company, it's much bolder than privately held Head Butler Inc. I keep my political and cultural opinions off my site, preferring to believe that culture can transcend partisanship. But Starbucks Media really does seem to be hewing to Shultz's original intent: "to build a company with soul." Internally, that means health care and stock options for its employees. In its branding, it means newspaper ads that say less about Starbucks products than its core beliefs. And, most recently, it means a kind of mini-blog—on its coffee cups—that gives you a pretty good idea of its political affinities.
These pithy blasts on the side of its paper cups, says Starbuck's, are "in the tradition of coffee houses everywhere." And because "Starbucks has always supported a good, healthy discussion...'The Way I See It' is a collection of thoughts, opinions and expressions provided by notable figures."
Not long ago, Armistead Maupin—probably the country's best-loved role model for gay writers—was featured. His contribution: "I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don't make that mistake yourself. Life's too damn short." Predictably, those who feel that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice"—and a bad one at that—have cried foul. Less predictably, Starbucks has not knuckled under to its critics.
Any expression of a corporate backbone is welcome in this time when media companies embrace vanilla neutrality like a state religion. What's stunning about Starbuck's is that, the more it gets into media, the more it seems to be waving its freak flag higher and higher.
In a way, that comes with the territory. Coffee is a brain stimulant, it jump-starts thought. Yes, there are high-energy conservatives, but are there—in the mass-media, anyway—thoughtful ones? Al Franken, coffee drinker: you can believe that. Paul Krugman looks like he drank one cup too many. But Ann Coulter? You wouldn't be surprised if you woke up one morning to learn that she was in an ongoing romance with crystal meth. Rush, as we know, was a hog for downers. And given the White House's lack of urgency about anything, it's a safe bet that the First Beverage is decaf.
But take a roomful of smarties, give them repeated doses of caffeine, and you've got a lab experiment. What will the conversation yield? On a quiet day, liberal ideas. When the synapses are running on all cylinders, sky's the limit.
The historical support for that proposition can be found in the histories of the great Viennese coffee houses, in the sublime period of ferment that ended with World War I. The most famous of these was the Cafe Griensteidl, home to satirist Karl Kraus and many others. As a chronicler notes, "Here, those who fled public criticism joined those who wanted to be surrounded by artists. It served as the ideal location where one could have a cup of coffee while looking over various papers available without having to purchase any of them. It was a more convenient place for people to write, sketch, and think than were the typically shabby, overcrowded apartments of the struggling middle and lower class. For some, the cafe was a permanent address where they received mail. Most important in many cases was the exposure to a progressive society. It was a place where ideas were formed and came to fruition, and the minds of the patrons were stimulated by debate and a constant flow of thinking."
I very much doubt that Starbucks will be the scene for soap-box speeches, literary debates and artistic feuds. There's no appetite for that sort of post-college bull sessions. And there's no longer a moneyed class of young artistes with nothing better to do than drink coffee, read the papers and scribble a few Deep Thoughts. Starbuck's is, first and foremost, a useful place—its Wi-Fi connections make it the lowest-rent office of choice for the denizens of COBRA Nation.
And yet the Starbuck's cafe on the corner—even in the heartland—dispenses thoughtful, complex, let's-call-it "progressive" culture with each cup of coffee it sells. (So did "Friends," with its dizzying array of single mothers, lesbian conversions, threesomes and other decidedly marriage-free relationship styles.) How does it get away with this heady brew of smart stuff? Because it never quite connects the dots.
And so the customers see only the specifics, not the big picture. They show up for their caffeine fix; they stay for the Wi-Fi; they leave with Emmylou Harris in their heads and seditious thoughts rubbing against their fingers. The drink cups in their cars may moan with pleasure at the novelty, but the blast of Starbucks music from the CD player drowns those R-rated sounds out. And in this way Starbucks continues, one small gesture at a time, to make America a little safer for free thought—and free thinkers.
I'll have a triple grande of that.
Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer and the founder and editor of HeadButler.com.
CORRECTION: Mediabistro originally reported: "[Starbucks has] launched a cheeky, way-off-the-reservation website called StarbucksGossip.com—its motto: "Somebody has to monitor America's favorite drug dealer" — and hired Jim Romenesko as its editor." Starbucksgossip.com is not affiliated with Starbucks.