07 August 2007

A few words about Starbucks

Back in the early 1980s, when I was but three or four years old, my hair just as an upturned bowl, golden of sheen, and my young and uncomplicated mind knowing scarcely a care in the world, I was living in Arlington, Virginia, a quiet and leafy suburb of Washington, DC, with my mother, father, and older brother. What an idyllic life we shared. Among many fond memories, I remember that there was a family that our family was friends with, and our two families had developed a tradition of going to dinner together - on special occasions, by the way - to a restaurant known, then as now, as Pizza Hut.

I remember Pizza Hut being a pretty classy place. There was a waitress, menus at the table, atmospheric lighting - and above all, exquisite pizza, served in some sort of cast-iron pan that I was always warned was very, very hot. In other words, Pizza Hut was the sort of place that a self-respecting young professional, recently entered into government service, could propose taking his family to dinner without risking being laughed out of the room or called a chump. Could the contrast with the Pizza Hut of 2007 be any starker, when, in truth, to describe Pizza Hut today as an utter dump would be to put the point kindly? (And, as an aside, the name of its parent company has always had a terrific ability to piss me off: "Yum! Brands." Could anything be less appetizing?)

Few would argue that something - God shudders to think exactly what - but something happened at Pizza Hut between 1984 and 2007, precipitating a transformation from pleasant family restaurant to what is today an unspeakable cesspool, where the pizza is rivaled in mediocrity only by the abominable service that delivers it. And of course, the company's efforts to seduce customers with the promise of increasingly monstrous quantities of cheese are alluring only to the least savory among us, whisking the restaurant even further away from anything that could unblushingly be called a "yum!" brand.

And this phenomenon is by no means restricted to Pizza Hut. Did anyone's parents ever take them to get ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins? And wasn't that a magical, meaningful experience? In the 1980s, Baskin-Robbins was THE place to go for ice cream.
Fast forward about 20 years, and the place fucking sucks. Somewhere down the line, the company's Chief Operating Officer decided to hang a "Gone Fishin'" sign on his office door and the son of a gun ain't been seen or heard from since.

Now, I have lately found myself increasingly perturbed by my experience as a frequent customer of Starbucks. I do not contend that Starbucks has lost all of the merits that first brought it to national prominence in the 1990s. But lately it has felt to me that Starbucks is edging toward collapsing under its own mammoth weight. One indicator of impending doom is that the Starbucks brand has become synonymous - at least here in New York - with "a place to take a piss," and that is never a good thing in the food and beverage industry.

More to the point, though, a customer experience is made up of a hundred sensations and perceptions, and Starbucks is becoming a place that I associate chiefly with screaming; commotion and all manner of mayhem; the proliferation of menu options to a truly grotesque degree; stuff frankly not being as clean as it used to be; and increasingly self-satisfied employees who are quite comfortable and at ease with the idea of destroying a customer's right eardrum by thundering at point blank range his drink order across the store to the barrista. With the menu's increasing reliance on gimmickry and appeal to sheer gluttony, it's hard not to see the company embarking on the same downward trend that spelled the end of Pizza Hut as a respectable business.

Starbucks is, in short, coming apart at the seams, of that I'm certain. Oh, by the way, I've noticed that they're now serving hot sandwiches of the Bacon, Egg, and Cheese variety (yum!). While I'm no expert in these matters, a five-year-old child can tell you that no coffee shop whose capacity to serve its main product is already strained to its limits will see its operations
improve from wading into the murky, malarial waters that serving hot food represents. Nay, to the contrary, whatever short-term profit they may bring... the sandwiches are trouble.

Hence, posthaste, full tilt, and without even a second's further delay, I declare, as upon the mountain, for all the world to hear, and may none fail to take heed as I say it:

Starbucks needs to tighten up.


Jordan said...

Pizza Hut and Baskin-Robbins have fallen victim to two phenomena. First, national standards for quality and ingredients have changed in foodservice. Pizza Hut has been supplanted by gourmet pizza parlors in the high end of the market. Baskin-Robbins wilted in the face of Ben & Jerry's first and Cold Stone Creamery second. So, both retailers lost much of their cachet.

Second, you got older, and stuff that used to be appealing to you no longer is. I used to eat McDonald's chicken nuggets prodigiously, when it is a cold, undisputed fact that these things are terrible.

In other words, the marketplace evolved and you got older.

Starbucks, meanwhile, has always been terrible to me. I don't understand the appeal of burnt coffee as anything other than a stimulant. In other words, Starbucks might as well sell speed.

Pepper said...

AHAhahahaha! Brilliant! I too recall such dinners at Pizza Hut with my family as a child (Becca's face reddening), and have long lamented that establishment's certain decline. Well tightened, sir.

Pete said...

That was quite a post. However, through your colorful prose and flowing storytelling, I can't help but ask; do you think, perhaps, that your newly aweful views of Pizza Hut and Baskin Robins could, in fact, be caused by your maturing tastes and not necessarily a decline in quality? Following that reasoning, perhaps Starbucks was always as loud and unclean as it is today, but you were so caught up in the plethora of lattes and mochas they offer that you never noticed?

Pete said...

Not to be a dick, but when the hell was everyone eating at Pizza Hut? I remember that being a place that our coaches wouldn't even take us after little league games.

Pepper said...

Pete, I have to concur with Mr. Rump--and I'm pretty sure this isn't the rosy lens of my youth--the Pizza Huts where I went (in the northern Shenandoah Valley of VA) were pretty good. My parents don't really tolerate bad food.

I also agree with Jordan that the rise of gourmet parlors and changes in ingredient and service standards have played a role.

Jordan said...

I should add that I frequented both establishments as a lad, Pizza Hut largely owing to its "Book It" youth reading program, Baskin-Robbins owing to its endless supply of rocky road.

mandy said...

Great post; this was an enjoyable read.

Whether we want to admit it or not, nostalgia has great influence on skewing not only our current disappointment with the decline of anything loved in the past, but it also cajoles us to remember with greater fondness something we were only moderately impressed with in the first place. (Let's be honest: this is why we find ourselves equally excited and cautious when dusting off those Little Monsters, Gremlins and The Wizard VHS tapes. Some of those movies really were great and stand the test of time, but the others really aren't worth the time past 4th grade.)

But I think one of the main reasons Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Baskin Robins, etc. are so easily susceptible to the lack of sustained quality is that they are national, chain restaurants. The manager of a franchise is in stark contrast to the sole proprietor of a restaurant started with good ol' fashioned elbow grease. As the manager of a franchise, it is much easier to let slide the subtle (but nevertheless continuous) decline of your tiny piece of the Starbucks empire on a meager wage with moody employees than the owner of that tiny, tucked-away coffee shop that prides itself on the quality of its joe and the atmosphere which it exudes. It's the same reason the latter cup of coffee is a little more expensive and that gourmet pizza makes your heart melt right along with the cheese, but boy is it worth it.

Anyway, find a new coffee shop, Donald! You'll have a happier disposition sans the screaming barristas and supporting your local economy is always a good thing.

Orville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Orville said...

Mandy, Gremlins has stood the test of time as a quality flick. You should our annual Jack Daniel's and Gremlins Christmass Eve and see if your perceptions change

mandy said...

Orville, actually, that's exactly what I meant, though I didn't get specific: I still love Gremlins, while say, The Wizard is kinda silly but fun to make fun of (what with a bratty Jenny Lewis, annoying Fred Savage and an the uncredited cameo of Tobey Maguire). In fact, I am rather fond of Gizmo and the rest of the mogwai's -- if we were Google Contacts/Buddies, you'd see he is my icon.