Heard outside Starbucks: 'Brother, can you spare a Frappuccino?'

When Starbucks announced it was closing 600 underperforming stores, including 17 in Southern Nevada, I imagined street corners across the nation lined with out-of-work baristas.

Barista. That's Starbucks talk for the person festooned with earrings who chats you up like a family member just back from the Peace Corps and also prepares your espresso-based coffee drink.

Admit it. Until Starbucks came along, you didn't know a barista from a tourista. I know I didn't, but then I don't get out much.

Now I can't live without one.

That's only one reason why Starbucks is important to the culture. It has taught us a whole new language. In fact, it might be the closest thing to a foreign language most Americans will ever learn.

A trip to Starbucks is like taking a cruise to a somewhat exotic, color coordinated island that, although tightly controlled by the corporation, allows you to visit without a passport and enables you to use words such as Ethiopia Sidamo and venti and macchiato and Frappuccino without having to exchange your U.S. dollars for Euros, lira or pesos.

I'm frankly surprised you don't see more people greeting each other with kisses on both cheeks at Starbucks. It seems like that kind of place. But perhaps customers are too busy trying to remember whether they wanted their peppermint white chocolate mocha iced, blended or poured in their hat.

My point is that Starbucks is a cultural phenomenon.

It's also a remarkable business success story with more than 15,700 stores in 43 countries. I'll double-check, but I think I counted 11,000 stores in Southern Nevada alone.

And any company that has figured a way to serve endless gallons of steaming coffee to Las Vegans in July, when it's hotter on the outside of the cup than it is on the inside, knows plenty about the coffee-selling racket.

So when I learned about the impending local store closures, I wondered what it said about the true state of the U.S. economy. That's right, Starbucks is my caffeinated canary in the coal mine. As goes Starbucks, so goes the nation.

Were budgets so tight people were not longer ordering $4.80 coffee drinks?

Were Americans no longer rushing out to vacation on the Isle of Starbucks?

I grabbed the address list of local stores set for the corporate grinder and made the rounds.

My tour resulted in a couple of simple truths and one hellacious caffeine buzz. While the sum total of my business acumen is limited to making sage choices from McDonald's $1 menu, I think I discovered Starbucks' problem.

They jammed some stores into really bad spots. When even people desperately chasing a caffeine fix can't find a way into your place, you've selected an inferior location.

Three examples: Coffee seekers attempting to pull into the store at Ann and Painted Mirage roads must hang a sharp right or risk merging onto the southbound 95. The Starbucks at 950 S. Durango Dr. is on a curve, and by the time you see the sign you've practically passed it. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't negotiate the right turn off Buffalo to drop into the store at 7595 W. Washington Ave. without hitting a guardrail. None offers a drive-through.

Add to that the fact a gallon of gasoline and a loaf of bread are now as expensive as a large blended coffee drink, and you have the recipe for a reorganization.

"Poor real estate decisions that were made, coupled with a very troubled economy, convinced us that these stores would not reach acceptable levels of profitability," CEO Howard Schultz wrote in a message posted on the company's Web site.

Credit his candor.

But thousands of wage-earners could lose their jobs in the shake-up.

Although several fiercely loyal Starbucks employees told me they were concerned about the closures, they seemed eerily confident the company would find a place for them as "partners." I'm not sure if they drink the coffee, but I suspect they've sampled the corporate Kool-Aid.

I just want to know what will become of the army of unemployed baristi. (That's the plural of barista.)

How do you scrawl your qualifications on a piece of cardboard?

"Will twice-blend-a-venti-mocha-iced-Frappuccino-with-whipped-cream for food" won't fit. By the time drivers at the off-ramp read your sign, the light will have changed.

Better stick with, "Will brew for food."

- 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 smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.


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