In Anthony Bourdain‘s book, “Medium Raw“, he writes that without Starbucks, we may still be paying $0.25 for a cup of coffee.  He postulates that for years, maybe even half a generation, it would have been absurd to have paid $3.95 for a cup of coffee.  In our parents’ generation, that is how it was.  Refillable cup of joe.  Cup of Java.  For a mere $0.15.  Even if you calculate inflation, which I have no idea how to do, it can’t possibly work out to be $3.95 for coffee, can it?  Anthony Bourdain thinks not, and I agree with him.  Something happened when Starbucks, founded in 1971, went global in the 1990s.  We started to pay dearly for coffee.  Now, this isn’t Sanka or Folgers.  This is some serious coffee.  Beans from far away places like Africa and Italy.  I mean, that in itself is worth the price of submission, isn’t it?  And, what about all the cute little Starbucks paraphernalia in over 17,000 Starbucks locations?  It all adds up.  It adds up right in the kisser.  A cup of “tall” classic espresso?  $3.95 please.  But oh, we’ll throw in a “fair trade, recyclable” piece of cardboard around the cup so you feel better about that purchase.

But hey, we’re all fans of Starbucks.  I’m a fan, you’re a fan, we’re all a fan-fan.  I don’t think twice when the nice baristas behind the “coffee bar” takes my $4 for something I could make at home.  In fact, I like giving them my money.  It gives me satisfaction I’m contributing to combat unfair trade practices in Africa for coffee beans.  What?  Unfair trading for coffee beans?  What has this world been reduced to?  And yet, I really enjoy going to a Starbucks every once in a while to plop down $4 for, if you break it down, flavored water.  I don’t even blink an eye driving to a Starbucks if I’m in the mood.

And then we went to Italy in 2008.  I had been there before, but not like the trip we went on.  Sans large and packed-like-sardines tour buses this time, we roamed the country at our own pace.  That was the first time our Italian friends introduced us to Lavazza, an Italian espresso coffee.  Maybe it’s not even the BEST Italian coffee, but I was hooked.  I was, enlightened.  We went to several Italian cafe’s to sit and enjoy a cup of cappuccinos like the locals.  And you know what we realized?  We didn’t see ONE Starbucks in Italy.  Not one!  I asked our friends why the Italy had spurned the global domination of Starbucks.  They told us that in Italy, the government subsidized the coffee, so every one can get it for €1.50 or whatever.  I’ve also read that Howard Schultz, the current CEO of Starbucks, upon visiting Italy, realized that the Italian coffee culture would be almost impenetrable with Starbucks’ business model.  Starbucks is about “fast” coffee.  Order how you want it, get it in a “to-go” cup and off you go.  The way Italians treat their coffee time is so different.  A “to-go” cup would be sacrilegious.  A ceramic espresso cup with a saucer.  That’s how it is done in Italy.  And that’s why Howard Schulz decided against bring the Starbucks culture to Italy.  It just wouldn’t work.  And I bet millions of Italians are thankful of that.

Ultimately though, Starbucks is more than just coffee and pastries.  To me, they’re also selling community in a box.  I think we’ve all seen people, young and old, meet at a Starbucks to catch up and “hang out”.  More and more business meetings are being held at a Starbucks.  In some ways, that’s good.  Get people out of the house in front of their TVs and computer screens to have community with their friends.  Starbucks has really been successful in creating a place not just where good coffee is served, but a warm and cozy place where people go to catch up on life.  I swear they crank up the AC in there so you buy more hot drinks, but it’s an inviting place to go.  And those are all the reasons why I don’t mind plunking down $4 for a cup of coffee.  It’s a great meeting place, especially in Southern California.  In a lot of ways, Starbucks is our Italian cafe’s.  It’s not as traditional and it’s not as cool, but one step at a time.  Maybe one day, we’ll want a tiny little Italian coffee shop where they service one type of coffee.  If you want to sit, it’ll cost more than standing at the counter.  But for now, I’m happy to participant in what Starbucks offers.  It’s a small price to pay to have face to face time with people I enjoy being with.