By Andrew Jack
NEW YORK, 25 OCTOBER 2009 - It has long
mystified me why Starbucks was so successful in the U.S., let
alone in other countries. The prices are high, the wait is
usually long, and (heaven knows) the coffee is not so
stand-out. The setting is cozy enough, and I'm not averse to
the experience. But the extraordinary thing is how ubiquitous
they (and a handful of other chains) are.
A decade ago, things were different, but travel today to
Paris, Pisa or even one of the UK's smaller towns like
Peterborough, and you can scarcely move without seeing cafes
- chains and independents alike - offering decent cappuccinos
and skimmed lattes. But go to even that most cosmopolitan of
U.S. cities, New York, and the story is very different.
It seemed absurd and culturally disrespectful in equal
measure that on my most recent trip to Manhattan, I ended up
frequenting the British chain Pret a Manger. Faint mental
images of the prototypical "Yank" landing at Heathrow or
Charles de Gaulle and asking "Where's the nearest McDonalds?"
played in my head. But I was growing desperate for a
reasonable cup of coffee. And that was when the epiphany
struck: Starbucks is king because of the near-total lack of
I had thought my hotel, the comfy and intimate Roger Smith,
would have delivered my morning wake-up. Its arty bedrooms
are designed as though you are staying with a friend, each
personally adapted with books, art and original furniture.
But the friendly-looking cafe downstairs offered appalling
over-boiled brown sock juice for breakfast coffee
(accompanied by ghastly loud piped music).
At Penn Station, one of New York's busiest transport hubs,
there is clearly no lack of demand (or money) among the tidal
wave of passengers being disgorged from their trains. But
despite the wall to wall shops, many with promising names
like the European Bakery and Delicatessen, a quick glance
behind the counters consistently revealed walls of monstrous
coffee boilers with near-transparent long simmering liquids
With an enormous queue at the one fallback option - the
single Starbucks outlet - I naively opted for another store
offering "cappuccinno." The misspelling should have tipped me
off. A little froth, quickly dissolved, revealed a
machine-generated liquid with a distinctly artificial taste.
Elsewhere across the city, there are of course twee cafes
like the Financier where you can get good coffee, tea and
cakes. But they are tucked away, over-fancy and far from the
norm. All too often, it's boiled "American" or trade up to
Starbucks. Even Seattle's Best and other U.S. rival chains
seem to have leap-frogged the East Coast for more exotic
Protectionism? Nostalgia? Fierce brand loyalty? Hostility to
fancy-schmantzy European drinks? It seems implausible.
There's work to be done - by the connoisseur seeking a decent
caffeine fix, by the urban anthropologist trying to
understand the phenomenon, and above all by the entrepreneurs
needed to build the market. But for now, I'm heading back to
London, for decent and plentiful latte.
Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial
Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There
Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press,
USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board
of Culturekiosque.com and last wrote on the film Afghan
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