I love Starbucks. I know, I know: its a corporate monster sucking the lifeblood out of local American business and homogenizing the country.
But before Starbucks was corporate, it was a Seattle institution, part and parcel of the city’s shift towards a coffee culture.
In my mind, Starbucks is connected with the mysterious changes in Seattle habits that seemed to proliferate with every visit: drive-through coffee shops, espresso at the local lube shop, etc. I remember my cousin S gleefully bringing me an espresso chocolate bar one year, and laughing with her at the thought of how in Seattle even the chocolate was caffeinated.
I also remember my aunt A and uncle T appearing with tall white to-go cups one morning at the beach cabins in Oregon where we used to go for family reunions. Where had they been? What were they drinking? Lattes, they told us. So this was urban culture, my sister and I realized. Gourmet coffee to go – excellent!
We waited and waited for Iowa to catch on to the gourmet coffeeshop craze – and it did, kind of. We had local artsier-than-thou places like Java Joe’s and more boutique outfits like Friedrich’s World Coffees and Zanzibar. What we didn’t have, despite the 1990s and early 2000s coffee explosion, was a Starbucks.
This was quite a sticking point, especially after my first trip to Beirut, in July 2002.
Even LEBANON has a Starbucks, I would complain on visits home to my parents. It had a CIVIL WAR. It has MILITIAS. There are MEN WITH GUNS and CHECKPOINTS and you can withdraw DOLLARS from the ATMS because people have so little faith in the local currency. Yet the country STILL has a Starbucks before IOWA.
The Starbucks gods must have been listening to my whining, because that winter, Iowa’s first Starbucks opened in the renovated Masonic temple in downtown Des Moines. Yes, the Masonic temple – but please, no Freemason/gourmet coffee conspiracies.
I should note here that I don’t even like coffee. I like the smell and I do love chocolate covered espresso beans, but I only drink coffee when its been tarted up into something totally other than a simple morning drink – like a cafe mocha with caramel, for example.
What I like about Starbucks and all the other gourmet coffee emporiums is that they also offer a fine selection of teas. This offered a great improvement over nearly every other restaurant and cafe in central Iowa, whose tea selection usually consisted of
Ugh. To me, Lipton tastes burnt; and … camomile? Only as a rinse to lighten my hair. What I love is a good rich English breakfast tea, with milk and sugar.
Starbucks sells Tazo teas, whose black tea is sold as “Awake” in the US and as “English breakfast” overseas.
Something must be wrong with the Starbucks franchise here, though.
Last weekend I went to two Starbucks – in Hamra and in Raouche.
In both places, the experience was … just like going to a cafe in Des Moines, circa 1990.
We have Refresh, the servers told me. Refresh is Tazo’s camomile tea.
What happened to your other six flavors? I asked.
The server in Hamra shrugged his shoulders and said, I don’t know.
The server in Raouche looked down at his cash register and began cleaning the buttons.
Tea fiend that I am, I actually had a teabag with me in Hamra – I stash St. Dalfour’s organic English breakfast in my handbag to drink at work. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised: me, at Starbucks’ lack of tea, or the server’s, at my have-tea-will-travel preparedness.
Sadly, I changed handbags (different outfit!) when I went to Raouche, and had to content myself with an anemic “iced coffee”, made the traditional-but-not-Starbucks way: one espresso, two glasses of water and a few forlorn ice cubes.
I hope the Starbucks concessionnaire sorts out his tea-ordering troubles soon, as “Beirut – just like Des Moines 15 years ago” isn’t the ideal slogan for this city.