I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to drink coffee with me. I’ve spent eight years as a barista and coffee-shop owner, and I’m picky. Super picky. The kind of picky that requires friends and family to pre-research coffee options if we’re traveling, in order to stave off my own insufferable complaining. Years of training mean I can sip coffee and know whether its flaw is in the bean, the roast, the age, the brew, or the machine. I’ve thrown out coffee after one sip, and I know exactly how wasteful and ridiculous that sounds. And that is why I’ve been as surprised as my friends to realize that, these days, I’d usually rather just go to Starbucks than to many of my town’s trendy coffee shops.
This doesn’t mean that I’ve turned my back on the tenets of great coffee, or given up the fight out of laziness. The truth is that in North America’s larger cities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to consistently serve coffee of the highest possible quality. To make great coffee and turn a profit, owners have to know all of the intricacies of sourcing, roasting, and brewing; they must open a shop that is busy enough to ensure that the coffee stays fresh and the espresso machine is in regular use; and they have to somehow figure out a way to pay the staff a living wage (which is where plenty of owners fall short).
Some people have been extremely successful, such as Duane Sorenson, who started Stumptown in 1999; and James Freeman, who founded Blue Bottle in Oakland in the early 2000s. For a while, it looked like these shops — and a handful of others that shared a similar set of values — would win out versus the coffee giants. David would slay the Goliath. Instead, Big Business just bought these brands. (Nestlé owns Blue Bottle and Stumptown is run by the same multinational corporation that owns Panera Bread and Krispy Kreme.)
All you have to do is look at any street in, say, Greenpoint or Wicker Park in Chicago to know that lots of other people have rushed in to try to open similar shops. As a business, a coffee shop is not an incredibly complicated or substantial investment. Renting a space might be something like $4,000 per month, a serious espresso machine will cost around $15,000 if it’s new, and bags of beans from trendy, name-brand roasters run around $11 per pound. (Subway tile, the preferred wall covering of choice, is also pretty cheap.) Because they have the right look, these smaller shops can also charge the same $4 per cup that others do, even if the other shops are the ones devoting their time and attention to making sure the coffee gets handled with care at every step of the buying and brewing process, which requires more expensive ingredients and more expensive, properly trained employees. (The best baristas in any city are more like bartenders — with their hustle and attention to detail — so when I owned a shop, I made sure to pay above minimum wage, and I also made sure to schedule and organize my shop and my staff so that they would make the maximum amount of tips, because that matters.)
Some people think $4 is a lot to pay for a cup of coffee, and it is — when the coffee sucks. But great coffee — delicious without sugar or milk, sometimes with the coffee’s natural buttery, sweet flavors coming through — is definitely worth $4. Sometimes it’s so good that it’s worth another $4 for a second cup, just so you can taste it again. All coffee is composed of water and ground coffee, so when the balance is out of whack, it either tastes like dirty water or tar. When the coffee has been improperly roasted, the drink will just taste plain burnt and ashy. Sadly, I can’t count the number of times in the last few years I’ve spent $4 on coffee that is either subpar, or flat-out undrinkable.
If all $4 coffee was amazing, people might not scoff, but these mediocre shops have flooded the market with drinks that won’t convince anyone of just how fantastic coffee can be. In theory, having lots of shops should make coffee better, but the reality is that they mostly just make it easier to find bad coffee.
I don’t want to support that. I do have a short list of incredible shops that I love, but when I can’t get to them, I’m the full-blown coffee snob waiting in line at Starbucks for a $2 tall blonde drip because I’d rather drink that than a $4 cappuccino from a hip shop that will likely be brewed with a burnt espresso blend in a machine that has never been properly cleaned.
It does hurt my heart a little to give my $2 to an enormous international company that already has too much money (a description that applies to Stumptown and Blue Bottle now, too), but at the very least Starbucks pays its workers a living wage and offers them benefits (eventually), which is more than the minimum wage that some independent shops pay. Starbucks also sells a lot of coffee, which means that nine times out of ten you can count on their drip coffee being fresh. Starbucks doesn’t offer the best coffee experience, but the chain does offer consistency and a solid price-to-experience ratio. And that means that I am now one of those people walking around with a little green mermaid cup. I just pray nobody mistakes it for a Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Clare Spikerman is an ex-coffee-shop owner with a history of barista-ing in London and New York, as well as a coffee explorer of North America, Australia, and Europe. She now spends most of her time telling jokes and yelling about how bad nachos are in Canada.