Essay: Quibbling Wieners, or Lobots in Love

Overheard at a San Francisco Giants game:

“I can’t believe I haven’t got an email since 11:59. I got 21 emails this morning, then nothing.”

“Oh my God! I wish my inbox was that slow today. I replied to like ten people during the last inning.”

“There’s this stupid app I’m trying to get to work, but it’s not integrating properly…”

“Someone just added me on Facebook who I like really, really don’t want to know about, but I don’t know how to say ‘no.’”

“Just ignore the request.”

“I know, but they'll like know I’m ignoring them.”

“Oh well…”

“There was a news story this morning about the new Google operating system.”

“Oh yeah, Chrome.”

“Yeah, I wonder what Sheila’s going to say about that. She was so bummed out by Android, I don’t know if she’ll ever give it a chance. Oh my God!!”


“I have to read you what Tony just posted on my page. He said, ‘There ain’t no party like a Lisa Loeb party!’ Hahahaha!”


“Oh Jesus. Like, has he not ever mentioned Lisa Loeb during the span of a day?”

“He loves her. He's such a Loeb-ot.”


"He's a Loeb-ot. Never mind."


“This Blackberry is slow today…”

“Well at least you have an excuse for not answering your emails.”

“That’s the thing – I haven’t got any emails for over an hour. So weird…”

“Remember when all you had was that like Sidekick, and you were on the road going to trade shows all the time? That was like the stone age! Hahahaha!!”

“I’m supposed to be getting an iPhone upgrade, I just haven’t filled out the req forms.”

“Oh you should totally do that! Give me your old one!”

“Sure, if they let me.”

“I’m sick of not having one!”

“It’s been almost two hours since I got an email…”

Needless to say, the Giants lost.


Essay: Anatomy of Coffee Franchise Stereotypes

What’s really strange is the fact that these places did not exist twenty years ago. When I was a kid, coffee was brewed at home, or was ordered in a fancy restaurant after a lavish meal. It wasn’t available on every city block as part of a heavily-branded, multi-national corporate strategy. There were coffee fiends in the workplace, old decrepit urns that held the lifeblood of a handful of officemates. There was coffee in the morning, at home, prior to leaving the house. To-go cups and traveler’s mugs were luxuries seen rarely. But it’s only within the last two decades that coffee, though it’s been an internationally-traded staple for centuries, has become a part of everyday American life.

It’s gotten to the point that we don’t think about it, just as we don’t think about steak & potatoes, eggs & bacon, turkey & stuffing. But what’s really odd about all this is not just the speed with which coffee has been absorbed into our automatic daily breathing-and-eating existence, but the degree to which cultural subgroups have allied themselves to one coffee franchise over all others. It’s not enough that we spend thousands of dollars a year on a “new” product that our grandparents probably spent a couple hundred on over their full lifetimes – now, we have to choose which coffee retailer we are going to support.

After the explosion that Starbucks gave us, after the utter deluge of Starbucks shops, mugs, beans, music, design, and other quasi-coffee-related trappings, and after other coffee connoisseurs decided that either: a) Starbucks’ coffee wasn’t good enough, or b) that Starbucks was the embodiment of absurdly overpriced, overly branded snobbery, other coffee businesses either increased their profile or re-branded themselves in opposition to Starbucks.

On the east coast, Dunkin’ Donuts is a force to be reckoned with. It’s the blue collar coffee joint, complete with traditional donuts, crullers, and pastries, as well as a newly-launched array of fancier eats – paninis and flatbread sandwiches and the like. DD is all about the average Joe – decent coffee, available in very large amounts, with optional flavors (vanilla, hazelnut) and not much bullshit at all. In fact, DD is so afraid of Starbucks-like bullshit that they don’t even allow you to add your own cream and sugar. I made the mistake of asking for a regular coffee once in Massachusetts, forgetting that in New England and New York, a “regular coffee” means “two creams, two sugars.” (I merely said “regular” to distinguish my preference from decaffeinated.) The surly meth-addled girls behind the counter listlessly threw in a bunch of sugar and cream, and handed me a cup of something that tasted a lot like the idiotic state beverage of Rhode Island, which is called “coffee milk.” Look it up and be amused.

DD’s old-school bright colors remind me of a time before coffee was the nectar of privileged assholes who could afford a decent coffee machine but who can’t be bothered to figure out how to make a decent cup at home. The thing I used to like about Dunkin’ Donuts was their refusal to update and mimic the policies and moods that were keys to Starbucks’ mid-to-late 1990s growth. Now, they’ve got these stupid sandwiches and smoothies and other junk in an effort to compete with Starbucks, but the quality of these items is truck-stop at best.

Borders, the dependable bookshop chain (the only one that actually cares about books at all), has recently begun using Seattle’s Best coffee in all of their stores. Borders’ main competition, the vomit-inducing Fox Network of bookshops, Barnes & Noble, uses Starbucks coffee. Interestingly, Seattle’s Best has been owned by Starbucks since 2003. Seattle’s Best coffee is still distinct from Starbucks, although not quite as good as Starbucks’ new house blend, Pike Place Roast. But this is still a good example of Starbucks’ monopoly over whole markets. Still, bookstore coffee zones are haunted mainly by students, most of whom should be violently ejected by management for not even having an empty coffee cup next to their laptops. Kick em out!

Starbucks itself has become thoroughly mainstream. Now that its market share isn’t as overwhelming, Starbucks has tapered back its ambitions of world domination, jettisoned some of its more egregious branding, and recently closed several hundred stores in the USA alone.

The crowd at Starbucks these days features fewer hyped-up dipshit business-types with gelled hair and tucked-in shirts, fewer superstars and Mercedes-drivers, and more soccer moms, foolish moody teens, and nerdy foreigners. The Starbucks brand feels tired, watered-down, and the vibe inside a Starbucks shop feels bloodless and dreary. In a way, I feel sorry for the company; they started off doing something really well, which was then overblown into a worldwide delusional caffeinated Disney-like spectacle, and now they are facing their comeuppance. Other brands have surfaced and the behemoth has been humbled, by their own success, by the anti-coffee snob backlash embodied by places like Dunkin’ Donuts, and by the truly excellent coffee of a few competitors.

Of the latter, Peet’s is the best example on the west coast. Peet’s’ history is oddly intertwined with Starbucks. Peet’s was founded in Berkeley in 1966; Starbucks in 1971. Starbucks’ founders knew Alfred Peet personally and bought their first beans from him. Whereas Starbucks later grew exponentially over a short period of time, Peet’s has grown slowly but surely over the years, maintaining a tight focus on high-quality, thoughtfully-crafted coffee and tea.

What sets Peet’s apart from Starbucks is their limited menu and the ready availability of excellent freshly roasted beans. The interiors of Peet’s shops are brown and taupe, with limited seating and a typically calm, quiet atmosphere. The music is almost always subdued, low-volume classical. There are rarely kids inside a Peet’s shop. Usually, there are several solo readers or writers with computers. It’s clear that Peet’s takes coffee and tea seriously, and hopes that you do, too. I like Peet’s, because I like their coffee and tea. Peet’s fans do tend to be militant coffee snobs, but like a lot of militant wine snobs, it’s not about class or brand-recognition – it’s about the finer points of flavor and craftsmanship.

Having said that, I appreciate what other coffee retailers have to offer, both independent and corporate. Starbucks, for all their early and obnoxious mistakes, has regrouped with a new focus on coffee that has yielded some positive results. For a short while, Starbucks was a dark cloud that loomed over the coffee industry, but that is far from the case now. Because not only has Starbucks improved their coffee and scaled back the attitude, but McDonald’s has entered the fray.

McDonald’s’ too-obvious “McCafe” brand began assaulting our senses earlier this spring. The ubiquitous billboards re-positioning the company as coffee specialists assume that we are willing to believe literally anything. McDonald’s is as much a coffee joint as Baskin-Robbins is a steakhouse. This marketing push is one of the most insulting I’ve seen, short of the advertising that eBay did for the first Transformers movie (and vice-versa, if you’ve seen the film). Suddenly, late in the coffee-franchise game, McDonald’s has made a mind-bogglingly bad decision. First of all, regular McDonald’s customers aren’t specialty coffee drinkers. Second, specialty coffee drinkers aren’t going to change their buying habits just because McDonald’s coffee is cheaper than elsewhere. Third, McDonald’s coffee always was, is, and will be bowel-bustingly awful.

I don’t know who this McCafe abortion is aimed at. The inner-city folk who tend to eat at McDonald’s three meals a day? I feel like they’re not into coffee. If they are, they’re just going to speed up the self-destructive cycle that McDonald’s hamburgers and fries already cause by imbibing this hot brown poison. Maybe McDonald’s is trying to clean up our cities by adding liquid hate to their coffee so everyone guns each other down, because that’s how I felt after just a single small cup of their regular coffee.

Recently, on a drive across the country, my wife and our friends and I went a whole morning without finding a decent place to stop for coffee. We covered well over 200 miles of I-40 without a Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, nothing. But there were plenty of McDonald’s. By 11:30 driving was becoming borderline impossible. We had to stop. The four of us got McDonald’s coffee and within ninety minutes, there were at least two bathroom stops and our moods had melted and collected into a single amorphous pool of acidic, acrimonious group hatred. After a lunch at Loretta Lynn’s Country Kitchen somewhere in Tennessee, and in the interest of keeping personal relationships among ourselves and others intact, we swore we’d never drink McDonald’s coffee again.

The coffee industry as we know it has only existed for a couple of decades – I’ve witnessed it develop and now sort of plateau. It might be one of the fastest examples on record of a cultural product starting out in a highly-cultivated, rarefied atmosphere and descending to the crassness of the everyday TMZ audience. Coffee will always be coffee and there will always be a gulf between good and bad, but something special is extinguished when access is suddenly forced upon all through the miracle of corporate marketing dollars.