Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz likes to claim his stores operate as “third places,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. But, do they really fill this role?
Now that so many street corners seem to have a Starbucks, has the international chain truly become that “place on the corner” where people connect? In fact, Oldenburg dismisses the Starbucks coffee shop as an “imitation”, debilitated by the company’s pursuit of that other quintessentially American obsession, security, and the sterile, predictable environment it produces. “With its overriding concern for safety,” Oldenburg told Bryant Simon, author of Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, “it can’t achieve the kind of connections I had in mind.”
Walk into a Starbucks today, and you may not notice much connection going on: some customers come in chatty groups, but many others arrive in search of nothing more than a place to open their laptops and get some work done; in effect, using Starbucks not as a third but a second place — their workplace. Most simply grab their coffee and go, never pausing to avail themselves of the chairs and couches provided, while others prefer to keep human interaction to an absolute minimum by using the drive-through window, a resoundingly un-urban feature Starbucks introduced in 1994.
Starbucks’ ongoing retooling and experimentation suggests that Schultz, for all he talks about his company’s resurrection of the “third place”, has yet to hear a sufficient amount of political banter and schoolchildren’s chatter in his stores. Starbucks’ enormous scale and need to service the American demand for frictionless convenience contradicts its mission to replicate the appeal of continental coffee-house culture: how much of a neighbourhood-rooted venue for chance encounter can you provide when you have to run thousands and thousands of them, making sure they all do more-or-less the same thing?
Maybe you could make a case either way. In favor, coffee shops serve as third places in numerous cultures and their presence almost everywhere means Americans have a common place outside their private homes and workplaces to get together. Yet, Starbucks present a common “McDonaldized” experience (it may be coffee but it is still fast food and often dependent on a car-driven society) that is primarily controlled by corporate interests. Perhaps only in a society that is so privatized (emphasis on single-family homes, cars, moving away from urban problems, individualism, etc.) could a chain coffee store even make the case that it is about community.
Spending data from the Census shows that for the first time Americans spent more at restaurants than on buying food at grocery stores:
More than two decades ago, Americans spent $162 in groceries for every $100 they spent in restaurants. But this past January, they spent nearly equal amounts of money in both places: $50.475 billion in restaurants and bars, and $50.466 billion in grocery stores.
There are several social changes behind this:
Perry attributes the numbers to dropping gas prices, which have left many people with more disposable income. But it’s unlikely that a single factor is to thank for the trend. “I think it’s a combination of a recovering economy and changing eating habits,” he said, extrapolating that “the millennial generation [may be] more likely to eat out than cook at home.” Perry also noted that dining in restaurants simply isn’t the once-in-a-blue-moon event it used to be…
Martha Hoover, the founder of sprawling Indianapolis restaurant empire Patachou, goes one step further: Restaurants have earned a role in society that is equal to “work” or “home.”…
“We’ve seen a huge shift in San Francisco,” she told Yahoo Food. “I’ve seen people who treat restaurants like they do in New York City: as their kitchens.” Weinberg attributes the change to people working longer hours, leaving them with little time to prepare their own meals. Grocery shopping, too, can be a pricey proposition if one develops a predilection for organic and local fare.
In other words, home and family life has changed alongside different economic options. We might also see restaurants more as “third places” between work and home where people can socialize and pay for their meals in a comfortable in between space.
Chicago is a world leader in Starbucks, even if it is sometimes insecure about its place on the world stage:
Chicago is home to 164 Starbucks, ranking the city second in the United State behind New York City–and fifth in the world, according to Starbucks store data compiled by Chris Meller.
There are 64 locations in an area bounded by DesPlaines, Oak Street, Congress Parkway and Navy Pier. That’s 40 percent of the city’s total…
At O’Hare International Airport alone, there are 17 Starbucks locations, including spots in baggage claims, terminal concourses, food courts and near gates.
The South Side has only nine stores south of 33rd Street. There are no Starbucks on the West Side–at least none west of Ashland.
The common factors behind the Chicago locations seem to be the wealth and number of tourists in different locations. In other words, Starbucks tends to locate where there are more people with more money to spend on coffee. This may be a little different than the vision the store promotes for serving as a “third place” – these third places are for certain kinds of neighborhoods.
A writer argues that civil conversation, let alone talk that might lead to political action and revolution, is not possible in American bars and cafes:
A noise gap has developed in American public life, and it’s a problem. The bars—at least those frequented by people under 40, who historically drive bottom-up political movements—have gotten louder. How loud? In 2012, the New York Times found that bars in that city regularly reached decibel levels so dangerously high that they violated federal workplace safety standards.
All that noise makes it hard to conduct a meaningful conversation, which is actually the idea. Bars have gotten louder at least in part in response to research showing that louder music encourages patrons to talk less and drink more. By rendering conversation obsolete, the loud atmosphere also nudges people towards imbibing past the point where intelligent conversation is possible. It’s not easy to find a large, crowded bar in an American city where conversation isn’t drowned out by music or a sports telecast. In fact, the Saloon, On U St. in Washington, D.C., has made its name by refusing to play loud music and forcing patrons to stay in their seats, making conversation possible.
The cafés, meanwhile, have gotten quieter. For centuries, coffee was used as a conversation stimulant. But in the present-day U.S., it functions primarily as productivity booster. Coffee long ago penetrated the workplace, and now cafés themselves have become workplaces—not just for eccentric writers and artists, but for knowledge workers of all stripes, who are often plugged into headphones that are plugged into laptops.
In 2011, a Gizmodo writer found it rude that people were talking near him at a café and tweeted, “Etiquette question: Now that coffee shops are basically office spaces, do you have to be quiet when you’re in them?” At the Bean in Manhattan’s East Village, as in several other other New York coffee houses, management has instituted a laptop-free zone. A few tables tucked in a corner of the shop, the Bean’s computer-free zone may as well be a memorial to the late, great café atmosphere.
This sounds like the sociological argument for better third places where average citizens can gather and converse. The primary argument there has been that there are not enough of these spaces. This new argument suggests having these third places isn’t enough; just their existence doesn’t guarantee public conversation but they need to meet certain conditions.
I suppose that could also fit a Marxist perspective: people use these spaces in such a way to follow their own interests (whether the customer wants to be left alone or the proprietor is pushing more product) and are blinded by the lack of civil discourse in which they are participating. In other words, the drinks, alcoholic, caffeinated, or sugary, and their intended uses, whether entertainment or work, are distracting people from the true issues at hand.
Does all this mean that we need a movement for better third places or public spaces (like public squares where some recent global revolutions have started or some argument that business owners who provide such private spaces will get more business) first before agitating against larger structures can begin?
McDonald’s has been part of some recent controversy over how long customers should be able to stay:
In the past month, those tensions came to a boil in New York City. When management at a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, called the police on a group of older Koreans, prompting outrage at the company’s perceived rudeness, calls for a worldwide boycott and a truce mediated by a local politician, it became a famous case of a struggle that happens daily at McDonald’s outlets in the city and beyond…
McDonald’s is not alone in navigating this tricky territory. Last year, a group of deaf patrons sued Starbucks after a store on Astor Place in Lower Manhattan forbade their meet-up group to convene there, complaining they did not buy enough coffee. Spending the day nursing a latte is behavior reinforced by franchises like Starbucks and others that seem to actively cultivate it, offering free Wi-Fi that encourages customers to park themselves and their laptops for hours…
“As long as there have been cities, these are the kind of places people have met in,” said Don Mitchell, a professor of urban geography at Syracuse University and the author of “The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space.”…
But the leisurely cafe culture and the business plan behind fast food are in opposition. Although signs hang in many McDonald’s stores instructing customers to spend half an hour or less at the tables, Ms. McComb said there was no national policy about discouraging longtime sitting. “The individual franchisees do what they feel is best for their community businesses,” she said. “In the case of Flushing, that franchisee welcomed those guests for years, and it was only when other customers felt they were no longer welcome that he attempted to adjust the visit time with the customers.”
Are these businesses solely for profit or do they also function as social spaces? Clearly the latter is true to some degree, particularly in a country that tends to lack many public spaces or a culture of cafes and pubs. When there are few other places to go, particularly for the economically disadvantaged who have less ability to carve out private spaces (whether big houses or their own cars), why not make a McDonald’s or a Starbucks into a third place between home and work? Going even further, could it be that McDonald’s is one of the few public places that will take you in if you have little?
Starbucks is a global brand but the company is looking to have more stores that line up with local style after moving designers out of Seattle:
As the designers became more familiar with their surroundings, they began to incorporate the communities’ stories into the designs. There are thoughtful touches like furniture made from reclaimed basketball court wood at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. And a brass-instrument chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the new Canal Street location in New Orleans. But even more interesting than that was the cultural observations the designers were able to make.
With more people on the ground, they began noticing things that might make a difference in not just the aesthetics, but how a particular customer might want to experience the shop. In metropolitan U.S. cities, for example, people tend to come in pairs or alone. They’ll saddle up to a long community table next to a stranger without giving it a second thought. In more urban settings, people will just sit right next to each other, alone but collectively together,” he explains.
While in places like China or Mexico City, the Starbucks experience is much more group-oriented. “People are in bigger groups, so you have think differently about the seating there.” he says. “They won’t crowd together in a banquet like they would in New York City.” This drove the designers to place more individual stools in the shops, so people could drag them around, creating impromptu group seating areas. The design in the Kerry Center location in Beijing, feels like a lounge, with a “coffee workshop” on the second level meant to teach a predominantly tea-focused culture about coffee…
Much of the mass customization comes in the form of colors and materials. For example, in Miami and Los Angeles, the design team is more likely to use a lighter palette of colors to reflect the abundance of sunlight. Southern cities need furniture that is cool to sit on, and beachy locations need durable furniture to account for the sand that gets tracked in. “We were looking at how the floor had worn over 10 years because people were walking in with sand on their feet,” Sleeth says about a store in Miami.
And for local design for all those Starbucks on the similar stroads of suburban America? The examples in the article are primarily from urban neighborhoods that have definable aesthetics.
Starbucks has long claimed to desire to be a “third place” between home and work. How much does local design help the company meet such goals? Do customers feel more at home (and happier and spend more money) in such stores?
Finally, does this sort of local design help people forget the fact that Starbucks is a major multinational corporation? Does it relieve guilt about patronizing Starbucks compared to a local establishment?
Starbucks has jumped into the political fray over the government shutdown with encouragement to sign a petition, wear badges, and follow a hashtag:
Because what’s most interesting about the “Come Together” campaign is what it aims to achieve from a systemic and meta-political point of view: It’s attempting to politicize previously un-politicized places. The coffee shop. The corner Starbucks. That zone of friends and family and familiar strangers, that place of light roasts and light jazz and assorted pleasantries.
This isn’t the first time, of course, that Starbucks has put its, er, cup-acious reach to work for political messaging. Last December, CEO Howard Shultz asked employees in Washington, D.C. stores to hand-write “Come Together” on cups—the better to encourage bipartisanship. Last month, Shultz penned an open letter asking gun-rights activists to stop bringing guns into Starbucks stores. (“Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called “Starbucks Appreciation Days” that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of ‘open carry.’ To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores.”) And earlier this week, the store offered a promotion—of itself and of, more explicitly, “civility”: “If you come into Starbucks and buy someone else their favorite beverage, we’ll give you a free tall brewed coffee.”
This is what some political theorists refer to as “sub-politics”: politics that play out on a level below traditional political institutions. And Starbucks’ efforts suggest not just a recognition that a store can double as a political platform; they also echo, for better or for worse, what coffee shops were, hundreds of years ago: bustling intellectual marketplaces. Places that were about more than coffee and baked goods and anodyne exchanges—places that were, in fact, about debate, political and otherwise. Places that used their ability to bring people together to join them together in conversation.
I wonder how sociologists who tend to like and promote “third places” – spots between home and work where citizens can form relationships and discuss civic and political matters – would view these attempts by Starbucks. It is not that coffee shops and other such places shouldn’t host political discussions but rather that a large corporation is leading the political charge, not the people. How exactly does this work: can Starbucks sell more coffee/other goods through its activism/patriotism versus how can Starbucks not alienate some consumers (or they have to stick to more bland, bipartisan messages)? There is potential here for a long-term mixing of sacred American values in interesting ways: promoting the public good may be very good for business.
Two other side notes:
1. Is Starbucks really the American coffee shop? It is probably the most recognizable coffee shop brand…
2. Try to imagine other major corporations making such a push. McDonald’s? Coca-Cola? Disney?