Monday, 13 April 2009

The Church of Starbucks and Encountering Its Leader

Having seen the King of Starbucks, Howard Schulz, recently promoting on BBC Breakfast Starbucks’ Via Ready Brew, its new instant coffee, I was reminded that I meant to blog about bumping into Schulz’ head UK honcho in February

That is, during an excursion to Starbucks for my addictive elixir, I ended up meeting the MD of Starbucks UK. Either that or he was just one of those weirdo attention-seekers who completely fabricate their Walter Mitty existences in order to feel important and gain misguided respect from gullible strangers. But I think now that it was the former.

Numerous colleagues took pleasure in announcing to me that Starbucks had just opened a new branch in Moorgate, closer to our office than the other branches that surrounded us. This was important news as I am a notorious Chai Tea Latté addict.

I know many people are anti-Starbucks. Many felt unhappy about Starbucks’ previous rapid expansion (the satirical The Onion reported many years ago that “Starbucks, the nation's largest coffee-shop chain, continued its rapid expansion Tuesday, opening its newest location in the men's room of an existing Starbucks.”) and feel no sadness that branches are now closing in the States. I keep bombarding colleagues with facts about their Fair Trade and charitable activities in attempts to soften their anti-capitalist pig dog feelings toward it, but I doubt I’ll win that war, although when I’ve treated them to various hot drinks, they’ve all thoroughly enjoyed them.

Not the way I do Chai Tea Lattés, of course. They are my favourite treat, my only vice, but more than that: they are, frankly, the reason I make it to work and get through the day. Not just because of the caffeine content; they are the carrot and stick that keep me putting one foot in front of the other to lead me from the rail station to the office rather than just to another platform where I might board a train that’s headed back home. So, despite my awareness that I’m spending a bazillion pounds a year on tea by buying two of them a day, you could say that, without Chai Tea Lattés, I would be bankrupt and homeless, as work would probably stop paying me if I stopped turning up, and then the mortgage and credit cards would drown me, and my cats and I would be out on the street.

When Starbucks first reached these shores, I would stare longingly at the people walking all around me clutching those magical cups that promised a hot, wet treat, sometimes foamy and sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate, which seemed indulgent yet couldn’t possibly be as fattening or artery-hardening as, say, a bowl of trifle or a hot fudge sundae. It was just a drink, so surely not so dangerous, yet they were carrying little cups of pleasure to enjoy when they reached their destination. I wanted that, but I detest coffee. That’s one reason they made me leave America.

I would occasionally meet friends there and enjoy a hot chocolate, but that really is too sickly and fattening to get regular pleasure from, plus as a rookie I frequently scorched my tongue and throat by forgetting that it’s much hotter than milky tea so shouldn’t be poured down one’s gullet as soon as one sits down. They eventually came out with Chai Tea Lattés, which had the fun foam of café lattés but rested above delicious black Assam tea with spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cardamom—absolutely scrummy, and if you get it skinny (with skim milk), it’s not half so dangerous. Sadly, I always get the largest size, Venti (which comedian was it who pointed out that Starbucks’ three cup sizes all mean ‘big’ in three different languages?)

So, Chai Tea Lattés were a little bit of happiness for me, but after my father died and I first returned to work following some weeks off trying to grow my brain back, I really did feel I couldn’t possibly leave the station in the morning upon arrival in the City unless it was on a train headed back home. Then I pointed out to myself that there was a Starbucks just a few hundred yards away, in my sights, and if I could just get there…..and once I got there, everyone was very friendly and seemingly supportive, and they gave me a wonderful drink, which really did become the carrot on the stick leading me to my office, where I would be able to sit down and enjoy my treat. Once I was there, it was a bit easier to cope, having already crossed the overwhelming threshold, and if I found myself flagging, it was good to have an excuse to pop out for a 10-minute walk (to a Starbucks) even on the busiest afternoons. I would go to a different branch from the morning one partly as it was closer to the office but also because I didn’t want the people who worked there to realise what a total addict I had become. Though what would they care?

At a good branch of Starbucks, they learn your drink by heart, despite you being one of hundreds of people they see each day. I just walk into the door and, as in a country pub, they start preparing my drink. Sometimes, when there is some loathsome swine in front of me fetching 12 drinks for his office and delaying me hugely, they will pause to make mine and hand it to me before finishing the swine’s thoughtlessly huge order. I love them. They know exactly how I like my drink, which can turn out dreadfully in the wrong hands (and paying over £3 for a cup of tea is ridiculous, but paying over £3 for an undrinkable cup of tea is infuriating and makes you want to kill someone). They are always kind and friendly, bizarrely seem happy in what seems an uneventful job, and even if my train journey has been heinous, which is often the case, their sunny dispositions and the way they know what I want without asking (how many spouses could say the same?) lifts my spirits a bit, and then they hand me my ticket to travel across the City to my office: the promise of a delicious drink. My small reciprocation was to give them a box of truffles at Christmas.

On this day, I had only 15 minutes before a meeting and really couldn’t see how I could make the journey, but was reminded that a branch had just opened very nearby. So I popped out after all and was waiting for my magic elixir to be made when I noticed a man standing half way between where customers waited for their drinks and half-way between the counter, where a member of smiley member of staff was answering his questions. He seemed to have his feet planted firmly there and I wondered whether, despite the smile, the staff member were irritated by this possibly lonely weirdo customer. But it wasn’t my business; I checked the emails on my phone and got ready to grab my drink and get to my meeting.

But then this possibly lonely weirdo customer spoke to me. I flinched slightly as I'm usually expert at avoiding chatty strangers who might want to take my bank details or convince me to change energy supplier. He started by introducing himself, and I never listen to names as I have some disability when it comes to remembering them and I’m usually too busy being judgemental about the speaker to hear what he has said. I did catch the North American accent though, and (despite being American myself), thought to myself in an unfriendly Londoner way: These Americans always have to talk to everybody, don’t they? So I gave him only a quarter of my attention and a brief smile whilst turning back to my phone, ‘til he said he was the Managing Director of Starbucks. He was wearing a baseball cap and, from what I recalled shortly afterwards, fairly casual gear and no tie. I never would have pegged him as an executive of anything.

Initially not sure whether he was THE head of Starbucks (this was shortly before the publicity after that insult exchange between Howard Schultz and Peter Mandelson), although I thought THE head must be CEO rather than just MD, I still assumed he must be from America and asked him what he was doing there. He said he’d been unable to make it for the grand opening of that branch a few days before so he thought he’d pop in (a statement that made me more sceptical as surely the head of Starbucks wouldn’t go to every new branch). His popping in, if he were he who said, must have been a real shock for the employees, particularly as he was travelling incognito. (Unfortunately, it had no softening effect on the very scary woman who I assume is the manager, who rules that branch like some SS exercise, shouting at the staff and humiliating them in front of and as well as the customers, making me dread going in there so much that I usually don’t, which is a far cry from the usual Starbucks philosophy).

He asked if I were a regular, which can’t have meant at that particular brand new branch, and I said that unfortunately, I was one of his best customers. Why unfortunately, he asked. Because it was going to bankrupt me, I replied. I don’t suppose Starbucks execs are amused about constant jibes about how much they charge for drinks (which I happily pay twice a day, it should be noted).

The price of a cup of tea has, I must say, completely skewed my sense of value. If I try to resist purchasing something, I’ll think, well, that’s just the price of a week’s Chai Tea Lattés, so I go ahead and get it. It makes me think how cheap a lottery ticket is, a third of a Chai Tea Latté, and that could be my ticket to a peaceful life of writing rather than a pressured life of a horrid job, so I make foolish decisions there occasionally (as the odds are ridiculous). However, one benefit of this value measure is that I donate to several charities via monthly direct debit as it’s usually paying per month to each what I spend in a morning at Starbucks, so it is easily justified despite my debts (and I’ll give them so much more once that lottery win comes in).

This head Starbucks chap spoke to me a bit more, and I said I’d been meaning to write to them in praise of their Walbrook branch. I raved about its service and country pub ways and said I didn’t know what they did to inspire their staff who might otherwise feel they were working in a tedious job (albeit one I could never, ever do with my lack of memory and of speedy manual skills), but they often cheered me up when I’d just emerged from some hopelessly late train as a ball of furious frustration. He spouted off a bit about the Starbucks philosophy of making each visit a welcoming experience blah blah etc, and I didn't mind though I knew all that. That corporate speak speech was what made me think he most likely really was the MD, and it would have been rude to make my ever-present scepticism evident at the time anyway. I was handed my drink, and he smiled at its complexity when the employee announced to me what they had produced at my request. We were getting along fine (though sadly, he didn’t offer me some high-paying job with free Chai Tea Lattés perhaps doing magical music compilations on their label which people could buy digitally in shop from machines as well…..) until I stupidly said, as I began to depart, that he must be American as I was.

“I’m Canadian”, he said with the cold exasperation that every Canadian must say a dozen times a week when people assume they’re one of us. My assumption had really been more because he was from corporate of a US company; I famously don’t really hear accents and have been known to insist to my colleagues’ amusement that a voice on my voicemail was clearly American when in fact it was Scottish.

So Mr Starbucks went off me quickly when I called him American, and he said he’d lived here about 25 years, which I muttered was a few years longer than me and that he hadn’t lost his accent, which was a daft thing to say particularly as I hadn’t really heard it.

I scraped into my meeting back at the office and announced that I’d just met the MD of Starbucks, unless he was just a pathetic creep pretending to be the MD of Starbucks, and even the anti-capitalists there were impressed as though I’d accomplished something special. I recounted how we’d been chatting along happily until I insulted him by calling him American when he was Canadian.

“Well, if you can’t tell, we have no hope,” one of my English colleagues said. Another proceeded to teach us all the key words he swore were a giveaway if pronounced a certain odd way as a Canadian would. But they were words that don’t often come up in a chat about coffee, like “house” and “quinine”. When I skied regularly in Canada in my youth, it seemed to me that most Canadians added “eh?” at the end of each sentence, but that might be regional or have died out; indeed, I hadn’t known any Canadian singers such as the great Ron Sexsmith to say such a thing constantly during his between-song banter at concerts. And this man hadn’t said, “You’re a regular customer, eh?” yet he still proved to be Canadian.

When I eventually had a chance to Google the MD of Starbucks, having concluded that it was Starbucks UK and not the whole conglomerate who was represented, I started to believe that I had, almost as expected, been hoodwinked, as the MD was a Phil Broad who looked nothing like the chap I met (who, curiously, almost did look a bit like some photos of CEO Schultz). But eventually I found that Broad had stepped down last summer and been replaced with Darcy Willson-Rymer, who was hard to find a photo of, but I believe that surname is Canadian. I eventually found a tiny photo of him sitting around the table with several others from an article on fair trade coffee, and I’m pretty sure that’s the baseball hat guy.

Do I feel like I’ve met my patron saint? Not quite, but it was an interesting few minutes whilst waiting for my lovely nectar. I was glad for more than one reason that I had ventured out to that new branch despite my lack of time. Even if he didn’t offer me a great job in their music business or as Chai Tea Latté Taster purely based on my, uh, magnetism during the few minutes we spoke until I dared to insult him with the A-word, it was an experience to break up the monotony of the days.

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