Starbucks chief's soul-searching a cause for universal head scratching

So Satan walks into Starbucks because he's just heard the news it's lost its soul, and because he just can't get started in the morning without a Venti cappuccino.

He tucks his tail up under his long, black leather "Matrix" coat and runs smack into the morning crush of caffeine junkies and latte lushes. He's at the end of the long line behind a fair number of lawyers, secretaries, judges, teachers and insurance agents, and that tests his notoriously fickle patience.

"See you soon," he says to one slow-ordering attorney.

Satan picks up The New York Times and reads a story about Vice President Dick Cheney and smiles to himself, then turns to the Arts page as he waits.

As you might imagine, the devil likes his coffee very hot, and Starbucks serves very hot coffee to millions each day. Lately the 13,000-store corporate giant has been in the news because its chairman, Howard Schultz, moaned about how Starbucks has become the world's bottomless cup of coffee but has misplaced its soul somewhere along the way. The Schultz memo's gnashing admission was leaked to The Washington Post.

"One of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past," Schultz wrote. "Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee."


Cookie cutter?

I thought that was the point.

Such news promised not only to draw interest from late-night TV gag writers, but also from the devil himself. Surely many people thought Starbucks had sold its soul many years ago, when it rose from a Seattle-based regional phenomenon to a multibillion-dollar worldwide power generating approximately the gross national product of South Korea on the strength of very hot and very overpriced coffee. The soul-searching Schultz's net worth is more than $1 billion these days.

Starbucks retained its soul long enough to play an integral role in converting the masses into bug-eyed caffeine cowboys who'd do almost anything to avoid missing their daily fix. I should know. I'm there itching and sniffing in line almost every morning, giving the knowing nod to the 20-something barista, eyeing the pastries behind the glass like fresh-baked porn.

It was Starbucks that gave the general public a new way of measuring that would make an Orwellian defense contractor proud. At Starbucks, "Tall" is small and "Grande" is only medium. If you want a large, you have to order in a foreign language. "Venti cappuccino, mille grazie," you might say in cracked Italian to the brow-knitting astonishment of the barista. (Barista, being another word for the person who pours the coffee and blends the "iced frappuccino," which is Italian for "caffeine-jacked Slurpee.") You learn all kinds of things at Starbucks.

While waiting in line, I tapped the devil on the shoulder and asked him about the soul of Starbucks.

"Souls are easy," he said. "Have you ever tried to get a consistently smooth cappuccino?"

"So, you come here a lot then?"

"For coffee," Satan said. "Not for bagels. You can order a bagel at Starbucks, but you can't get it toasted. I never understood that."

Me either, come to think of it.

But the point is, soul.

Starbucks plays neatly packaged soul, jazz, rock, blues and reggae, which it also markets for sale. The music is always hip, sometimes eclectic, but never too challenging for customers who attempt to name that tune. That's in keeping with the wonderfully packaged atmosphere, which is intended to make you feel good about your caffeine addiction, your taste in music, your sweet tooth and the fact you're actually waiting in a long line for the chance to pay too much for a cup of coffee.

Al Tobin, an investigator with the federal public defender's office and Internet poet, laughs sinisterly at the prospect of what he calls the "brewed awakening" at Starbucks, the coffee Goliath that has finely ground mom-and-pop percolators across the land.

"It would be the 'Enigma' of this 'Brewed Awakening' that Starbucks has become as boilerplate as Wal-Mart," he cracks, dropping the names of downtown's last cool coffeehouse and another that does business near the corner of Eastern and Sahara.

Meanwhile, Schultz has a goal of opening 40,000 Starbucks worldwide.

As Satan himself might have said, soul-searching only goes so far.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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