Each morning, the city’s Starbucks stores overflow with customers. Customers who have complicated demands and exacting standards. Customers who treat speedy service as an inalienable right. Customers who haven’t had their coffee yet.
My local, the Sheridan Square store, is thronged with West Village types whose orders run to the eccentric — extra-hot, half-pump, grande-in-a-venti-cup eccentric. The staff could be forgiven for maintaining a detached demeanor given such demands, but they are warm and affectionate, especially with the regulars. Felicia, the voluble barista, starts making my iced American as soon as she sees me walk through the door. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to the Norm Peterson experience.
This fall, the Times’ Ginia Bellafante wrote in her “Big City” column of having found an intimacy at her Brooklyn Starbucks that she’d never experienced at any of her neighborhood’s independent coffee purveyors, where the staff tended to be “unfriendly and imperious-looking.” That purist pose might fly in the hinterlands, where people have time to fetishize the notes of a single-source espresso. This is New York City: We need our coffee delivered with maximum efficiency and minimal attitude, to fuel the work that makes the world go round.
Recognition for the green aprons from the Gray Lady was nice, but it felt anecdotal. I wanted to prove that New York’s Starbucks staffs are the best in the world. So I enlisted friends across the country to help me conduct an experiment in which they would record how long it took their local Starbucks baristas to prepare their drinks. Meanwhile, I started timing my own beloved team each morning.
The results were … inconclusive. A friend who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, reported the Starbucks there made her daughter’s steamed milk with military efficiency. The downtown store in Lake Forest, Illinois, made a cappuccino with similar celerity. A dispatch from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, suggested southern gentility might slow the process slightly, but the time per customer still hovered around two minutes — a shade slower than the New York average, but only a shade.
I remain convinced that in a time trial, under controlled conditions, our baristas would best all comers. Other cities don’t have the density to approximate a mobbed Manhattan morning, and I just don’t see Chicagoans dreaming up the elaborate modifications to the eggnog latte I’ve overheard on Grove Street. Is it the height of homerism to claim for New York the services provided by a Seattle-based chain? Prove me wrong, pal.