Somewhere along the line, coffee
morphed into something more. It started with Starbucks. A band of
caffeinated wizards from Seattle convinced an entire generation of
people with two bucks to rub together, that mere coffee wasn’t
enough--you had to have Starbucks. For years now we’ve been hearing
people use the phrase “I’m going to get a Starbucks” instead of saying
“I’m going out for coffee.”
Like Xerox before them, Starbucks welded their brand
name to a product, and an experience, with great success. Unlike Xerox
and megabrands in high-tech fields, Starbucks was selling us, for twice
the price, a product that already existed. What we had available for
pennies at home they sold us for dollars out in the streets.
Starbucks convinced an entire
generation, and eventually their parents, that coffee, once the thing
you made at home or, on a splurge, poured into a cup at the gas
station, was a premium product that could only be obtained through the
hands of certified professionals. They created a new pop culture
character: the barista. They taught a sleepy nation to stand in line
and use funny names to order customized caffeinated cocktails, spending
in a month what some people spend on rent, and keep coming back for
They created an industry in their wake.
Today almost every place that sells coffee now calls what they sell
“premium,” not regular, coffee. Local coffee shops like Funk and
Freedom and Sugar Pearl (cheap plug for local good guys) offer an
upgraded version of what we once called diner coffee, at a premium
price. Starbucks has made even crummy gas station coffee expensive.
Starbucks was based on a premise. “You can’t make it
this good,” they told us implicitly. “Nobody can. You have to pay us to
do it. You have to pay us a lot. And, you will wait in line. You will
order using funny names. And we will take you seriously.”
Sure there’s the atmosphere, but in
large part they succeed in doing what good marketers do--making us
think we need them, when really we just like having them around to make
our coffee, so we don’t have to do it ourselves.
Full disclosure here: Although I am
friends with two local coffee impresarios, I like Starbucks. I like the
atmosphere. I like the coffee. I really like the black tea. The
employees are friendly, and I get the sense that they are treated well
by the company. I like that. But when I go in there, I know I’m being
taken. That’s always been part of the deal.
Until now. This week I walked by a
Starbucks and I saw a sign that says “Starbucks Via.” The name left me
puzzled. Is this a beverage designed to treat erectile dysfunction? Is
this a typo--did they leave out a word? None of the above. It turns out
that Starbucks is now selling instant coffee. Well, of course they
don’t call it instant coffee, because being Starbucks they have to come
up with a pseudo Italian name. They call it “Starbucks Via.”
So now the very people who worked so
hard for so long to convince us that only they can make our coffee are
saying “never mind.” Actually, they’re telling us that we can make it
ourselves, from a package of infinitely tiny powder that they sell us.
They fooled us, and now they think they can fool us again? Are they
sitting behind the curtain laughing their tails off at us?
Is this the start of a trend? I asked
Adam Gold, the sophisticated funk master who runs the Funk ‘N Waffles
coffee emporium on the Syracuse University Hill, if he intends to sell
instant coffee. “I would if I could make it taste as good as our
coffee, but I can’t,” said Gold. “They can make an instant that tastes
as good as their coffee, ‘cuz their coffee’s not that good.”
Nonetheless, Starbucks customers have
been buying that instant coffee at a pretty good clip. Yet, when they
get home, they’re going to face another dilemma. Since the bottled
water marketing wizards have managed to convince so many of us that our
perfectly good tap water isn’t fit to drink, what water will they use
for their instant coffee? Evian, Dasani, maybe Poland Spring? Or
Starbucks Ethos water, the most expensive H20 this side of Saratoga.
For, you see . . . in the beginning, there was water.