I went all the way to Seattle to discover the true meaning of Starbucks

Published June 7 2018
Updated June 7 2018

SEATTLE -- Every Starbucks experience in my life has been roughly the same.

I wait in a never-unreasonable line to order. I squint at soulless foodstuff. Some soft pop plays. I order. I wait a never-unreasonable amount of time for my beverage and snack. Usually, the nice-enough barista spells my name right.

Whether I’m in Florida or California or Shanghai, I’m in the same coffee shop. People like consistency. That is the point of Starbucks. Right?

Unlike most neighborhood coffee shops, in which the neighborhood is more important than the coffee, Starbucks exists independently. When customers cross the Starbucks threshold, they transport to a world where reliability is the only charm.

It wasn’t always this way. Starbucks was once someone’s neighborhood coffee shop. Specifically, the neighborhood coffee shop of people who lived near Pike Place Market in Seattle almost half a century ago. The store, which opened in 1971 at 2000 Western Ave. — and then moved a few hundred feet to its current home six years later — sold coffee, tea and spices.

When I learned I would have a 12-hour layover in Seattle, I became obsessed with the idea of visiting the first Starbucks. Eschewing the many delights of one of America’s great cities to wait in line for the same coffee I could get down almost any American street tickled me.

Of course, it would be a joke at my own expense.

"What did you do in Seattle, Kirby?"

"Well, I hung out in this local coffee shop."

• • •

The point of a trip to Starbucks is almost never a trip to a Starbucks. The coffee chain has grown so big, with more than 13,000 locations in this country alone, it is woven into the fabric of our society. Stores can be anything to anyone: ritualized energy, an office, a place to date or dote or hand off custody.

On April 12, Starbucks became something else to many: an arena of inequality. That day, two black men from Philadelphia, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, tried to use the bathroom, but an employee told them it was for paying customers. The men sat at a table. A manager asked them to leave. Robinson and Nelson said they were waiting to meet a potential business partner. The manager called the police. Customers filmed, and in that moment, reliable Starbucks became something else yet again — a platform for public shame.

Starbucks and the Philadelphia police commissioner apologized to Robinson and Nelson, who settled a lawsuit with the city for $1 each. Philadelphia officials worked with the men to fund a $200,000 grant for local schools. Starbucks issued a new policy that allows anyone to spend as much time as they want in a store, purchase or not. The company closed more than 8,000 stores early on May 29 for a day of "anti-bias" training.

The controversy didn’t blow up the news cycle because it told us much about a coffee chain. That story, like other — less serious — Starbucks controversies of days gone by (Christmas cups!), grabbed us because it violated our perception of Starbucks’ real product: ubiquitous neutrality.

But Starbucks isn’t really neutral. It’s American.

• • •

Before Starbucks was everything, everywhere, it was one small store near Elliott Bay in Seattle.

As I stumbled up the brick street still groggy from my flight, I realized visiting the world’s first Starbucks might be a Whole Thing. I listened to excited sightseers speaking in different languages. A few dozen people stuffed themselves into a queue outside. Inside, the store was just as packed. Selfie sticks abounded.

After squeezing through the sidewalk, I found a place at the back of the line. We kept access clear for the Mexican grocery next door (est. 1976), but no one went in.

"Maybe they’ll serve really old coffee beans," said a woman in line.

The original Starbucks sign sported the familiar mermaid suggestively holding parts of her tail in either hand — with one major difference. In the original logo, the mermaid is topless. In more recent iterations, long hair covers her breasts. Before she conquered the world, she had to dress up.

A "coffee master" named Rachel tried to sell me items from the First Starbucks Store Exclusive Merchandise Collection. I wondered what qualifications one needed to work at the original Starbucks.

An older blond woman named Pat greeted us en masse, offered apologies for the long line and gave us instructions. She had worked at the flagship location for four years. She wasn’t handpicked by higher-ups, she just wanted to move closer to her son.

The big line split off into half a dozen ordering stations. Pat directed me to Christian, who had bounced around Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Massachusetts Starbucks. I ordered my cup of Nicaraguan Pike Place Special Reserve and waited for hot water to be poured over $5 beans.

I retreated to the back of the store and, for an hour, did something familiar. I hung out at Starbucks, a place I’m comfortable by default. But in this Starbucks, I felt uneasy, like I was in the way.

The original Starbucks experience is different. The coffee, at least to my taste, is better. There are no bathrooms, no place to sit, no English muffin breakfast sandwiches or pink birthday cake pops. The cream and sugar station is all but unused.

The original Starbucks presents not a series of endless possibilities, but one option that feels miles away from the evolving Starbucks in the news: Order and get out.

• • •

There is more than one Starbucks at Pike Place.

A few hundred yards from the original, there’s an average location. It serves muffins and other baked goods, which the baristas will warm up. You can buy the special Pike Place coffee found down the street.

The store was crowded, with only one seat open. I took it, across from a scraggly older black man who nursed a cup of water. As I read my book, I thought I noticed his eyes flicker across the room.

I had been anxious in that first Starbucks because there was no seating and because it was a tourist trap. This man seemed anxious for different reasons.

I’ll never know what brought him to that Starbucks, or whether my assumptions about him reflected my own bias. Was I, a young white man taking a Starbucks tour as a personal joke, projecting on someone minding his own business? What was anyone doing here, heads in laptops and books and Frappuccinos and water cups?

People like consistency, yes. But now we’ve seen reality, streamed online, the blemishes on the behemoth that started across the street. It’s not as neat as Tall, Grande, Venti.

I didn’t get it together to ask what brought the man to Starbucks that day. He sat a few more minutes, wished me a good day and departed into the light Seattle rain.

Contact Kirby Wilson at [email protected]