It hadn’t been a good week. I was poised to spend another five hours at Starbucks editing the Great American Novel. After 14 months I was stuck in a mire attempting to bring synthesis to 66 chapters of action. Was Ofa Hawkins, the heroine, believable in her consuming love for Seamus O’Grady? They’d not seen each other for 10 years. Regardless, I wasn’t going to let the Vietnam War destroy their love. The war had already taken too much. Not this! But I had to write a believable story bringing them back together!
As I walked into Starbucks, a pensive mood heightened my awareness. Subsequently, I noticed the colorful T-shirts the baristas were wearing. It was Fizzio Friday! Starbucks was marketing a new line of soft drinks. In their attempt to create an air of sophistication, they described their product with an Italian flair. Fizzio! At Puglia’s Delicatessen in the Bronx, we called it soda and we were in an Italian neighborhood!
Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chief executive, believes that schmoozing the customer thereby creating a chic mindset relative to a product would entice one to purchase a root-beer Fizzio. Perhaps the justification is germane to the unit cost of a grande Fizzio. It’s $2.95! That’s for about 8 ounces of ice and 8 ounces of soda — oops! —I mean Fizzio. All the sophisticated branding doesn’t change the fact that it’s pop!
You know, a grande is far from grand. It’s medium! And a tall, that’s a small. Mr. Schultz calls it tall so you don’t feel bad forking over $3.95 for a small vanilla macchiato. Starbucks is selling itself as a lifestyle catering to a false sense of luxury. For some people, ordering a “Grande Latte Half-Caff” makes them feel sophisticated. It’s a feeling of exclusivity. Does Mr. Schultz believe the consumer is intellectually vacuous?
I tried to focus on my character Ofa Hawkins’ flirtatious manipulation of a ranking member of the Russian politburo. Should she have a sexual dalliance? Would that mar her character? Instead, I’m distracted by colorful bands on the arms of two baristas. Since I’m insanely curious, I asked if their armbands signify a form of solidarity.
No, they tell me. They wear it to cover up tattoos visible to the customer.
I swear, I almost fall off my chair on hearing that. Is Starbucks all about image? Do they believe the average consumer would be spiritually shallow and thereby be offended by a barista with a tattoo serving a Fizzio? Mr. Schultz, what would you do if a barista had a harelip? Require them to wear a mask? In their attempt to deliver us from evil, they’ve extinguish the brashness of the world, the components that give us life and color.
Shouldn’t they accept an individual in totality, with both perfections and imperfections? Do you make judgments relative to the idiosyncratic identities the employees use to define whom they are?
I go to Starbucks for one reason: The kids working there are wonderful! They are engaging, filled with a warm and accepting demeanor, and always put a smile on my face. Whether or not I have a tattoo, pink eye, or forgot to comb my hair, they’re glad to see me. They are exceedingly gracious and treat their customers like a million bucks, making their morning, afternoon, and evening experience pleasant. Of course there are wonderful components to Starbucks; however, most are attributed to the hard-working kids. The employees are such not because of the bottom line, but because of who they are.
Perhaps I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, but it’s the small stuff that eventually defines who we are. Oh! One more thing, Mr. Schultz — stop pretending to be Italian! You haven’t earned it.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.