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America's Best Coffee

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As I sidle down the sidewalk to the corner Starbucks, a faint coffee scent tinges the air. A sign hanging in the window boasts, “We’re the country’s #1 best coffee!” I open the heavy wooden door, and a flash flood of heady coffee scent swirls around me. The shop is a rush of murmurs, warm banter, and gentle laughter. A smooth, eclectic indie song keeps time in the background. A line snakes toward the general direction of the counter, where two baristas are frantically taking orders.
A stylish bleach blonde wearing a short black dress and stilettos juggles her low fat skim latte, sugar packets, and a Coach purse. Behind her, two men with dark, intense voices and bulging biceps meander to the register. Their shirts read, “Harrisonburg Rescue Squad Paramedic.” The taller one orders two venti black coffees (presumably with enough caffeine to keep them awake until next Tuesday.) “That will be $7.43,” the clerk chirps.
Around the store, people gather in couples and clumps to study or have discussions. The general air is one of happiness and community, fostered by cheerful greetings and steaming cups of coffee. No one seems to notice the excessive prices on the menu board above the counter, even in these frugal times. And if they do, they don’t show it.
In 1971, Starbucks was a tiny coffee shop nurtured by the city of Seattle. Today, it has become an international chain and a household name. One can’t help but wonder at its success. According to its website, during the 1990s, the company was expanding at the pace of a store a day. While it has been forced to cut back because of the recession, the country still brims with Starbucks locations. With monster competitors like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts putting out coffee at an equally rapid pace, why is Starbucks still a major player?
“The taste, definitely,” an older woman wearing thick black eyeliner declares. She takes another sip of coffee as she speaks. “It’s the best of anywhere.” The barista wiping the counter in front of the woman nods in solemn agreement. A couple a few tables away has the same opinion.
“Their coffee has always had a really bold taste that we love,” the man states matter-of-factly. His wife looks up from wiping muffin crumbs from their young daughter’s face.
“I agree. Even though they’ve started using a lighter tasting brand, we always request the black stuff.” She laughs to herself. “I mean, if their prices went up a whole lot, we probably wouldn’t keep coming. But as it is, we stop by four or five times a month.”
Yet the ones who come to Starbucks primarily for the taste seem to be a select few. An older couple seated in the corner booth are splitting the Sunday version of the Washington Post. “We usually don’t come to Starbucks,” the woman says nervously, settling her hands on top of her newspaper. Her eyes dart to her husband, almost as if for assurance. She stares at her lap.
“That’s right,” he booms. His gaze switches from me to his wife, and he frowns for a second before continuing. “We’re just here wasting time. If I come to Starbucks for coffee, it’s out of convenience. The taste isn’t that great.”
Behind him, a barista sets an iced coffee on the counter. “I have a mocha frappachino here…mocha frappachino, anyone?” he calls. The couple goes back to reading; a blender growls as it crushes ice in the background. Students huddle around piles of mountain-sized textbooks and pore over lecture notes as the unending line inches forward.
Two teenage girls near the counter are waiting on their order. They alternate between whispering and giggling as they discuss their lives. Their fresh, smiling faces contrast with the world-weary adults waiting to order behind them. I ask if they would mind answering a few questions.
“Not at all!” they reply, almost simultaneously. I peruse my list of questions before asking why they prefer Strabucks.
“I don’t even really like Starbucks coffee,” the brunette finally confides in a sheepish tone. Her friend turns to face her with wide eyes, as if to demand a response.
“What?!”
“Well, I come for this lovely beverage here,” she concedes, as the barista hands her a sweating plastic cup brimming with pink passion fruit iced tea. “Starbucks burns their beans, and I hate that in a coffee. When I’m actually going out for coffee, I go to McDonalds. It’s cheap and surprisingly good.”
I follow them across the store, past glittering purple packages of Starbucks Anniversary Blend to a coffee station stocked with twin napkin canisters and straws. Sugar liberally sprinkles the counter top like fairy dust. They grab handfuls of napkins and pink packets of Sweet and Low before meandering to a wood table with a worn surface and mismatched chairs.
When I ask them how many times a month they go to Starbucks, the other girl, a petite redhead, responds, “Once or twice a week.” She pauses with a blush. “It’s so bad, I know. I wouldn’t go so much if it wasn’t so close. I’m always needing some kind of quick pick-me-up, and Starbucks does the trick. But their coffee isn’t the best tasting, just the most convenient.”
In a world where Starbucks seems to claim every corner, one can easily see the draw. Whether the taste is truly excellent or only average is a matter of opinion. What is certain is that Starbucks capitalizes on the world’s perpetual need for caffeine. The general consensus seems to be that Starbucks is overpriced (and perhaps overrated.) But still, its customers keep coming back. Why?
“ It’s a brand name,” one man shrugs. He shifts the laptop under his arm to the other side and rubs the black scruff on his chin. “I’m actually from out of town, in a hurry, and I just needed some coffee. It’s not the best I’ve ever had, but at least I know what I’m getting.”



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