Thursday, June 06, 2013

Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and Fish

On, Andrew Ba Tran, Scott LaPierre and Alvin Chang interviewed and giffed (is that a verb?) customers of Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks, each about the other place, in search, it would seem, of an obvious class and cultural divide. Customers for the most part didn't disappoint (Starbucks' branding is extraordinary).  One anti-yuppie caught my year, both because she expressed a feeling of mine about Starbucks and because I'd heard her plaint before, in a very different voice. Paula Shay said of Starbucks:
...they're way too expensive, you gotta make it yourself -- it's very inconvenient. I love Dunkin Donuts, they always make it right -- you go to Starbucks, you gotta make it yourself. I feel like it's a yuppieville, urban, like -- it's just not for me. ANd I don't like the coffee, it's way too strong. It's just not for me, Hon.
In sync with Ms. Shay is one of the most erudite of academics, the always argumentative Stanley Fish, who complained in the Times in 2007 that Starbucks confronted the customer with a "coordination problem" akin to the challenges faced by a general deploying an armed force. The struggle climaxes in the combat of the condiments table:

But then your real problems begin when you turn, holding your prize, and make your way to where the accessories — things you put in, on and around your coffee — are to be found. There is a staggering array of them, and the order of their placement seems random in relation to the order of your needs. There is no “right” place to start, so you lunge after one thing and then after another with awkward reaches.

Unfortunately, two or three other people are doing the same thing, and each is doing it in a different sequence. So there is an endless round of “excuse me,” “no, excuse me,” as if you were in an old Steve Martin routine.

But no amount of politeness and care is enough. After all, there are so many items to reach for — lids, cup jackets, straws, napkins, stirrers, milk, half and half, water, sugar, Splenda, the wastepaper basket, spoons. You and your companions may strive for a ballet of courtesy, but what you end up performing is more like bumper cars. It’s just a question of what will happen first — getting what you want or spilling the coffee you are trying to balance in one hand on the guy reaching over you.
Fish also expresses a retro version of Ms. Shay's "they always make it right" (and her complaint that Starbucks is "urban, like"):
It used to be that when you wanted a cup of coffee you went into a nondescript place fitted out largely in linoleum, Formica and neon, sat down at a counter, and, in response to a brisk “What’ll you have, dear?” said, “Coffee and a cheese Danish.” Twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page.

Now it’s all wood or concrete floors, lots of earth tones, soft, high-style lighting, open barrels of coffee beans, folk-rock and indie music, photographs of urban landscapes, and copies of The Onion.
Oh, and re her "way too expensive"...
And two things add to your pain and trouble. First, it costs a lot, $3 and up. And worst of all, what you’re paying for is the privilege of doing the work that should be done by those who take your money. The coffee shop experience is just one instance of the growing practice of shifting the burden of labor to the consumer — gas stations, grocery and drug stores, bagel shops (why should I put on my own cream cheese?), airline check-ins, parking lots.
When I first read that Fish piece, I thought it kind of curmudgeonly. But it's often recurred in memory as I potschke at self-service counters with cream, stirrer, etc.  And I'm on board with both of them about Starbucks, which I find  claustrophobic, cold, dark and hard (though I do like the coffee). I walk by, peer at the lines and people perched on high stools, and walk on.  In fact, I'm with Fish on just about every complaint he voiced.

Oh, and when I do on rare occasion end up in a Starbucks, I generally tap an option I read about long ago, probably in the pre-Murdoch Journal, and ask for a small. Even though it's not on the menu. And I get it!


  1. But it's not expensive if you compare apples to apples--the price of brewed coffee at SB is very close to the price of the same at DD.

    Type of cup might matter to people too--I hate styrofoam.

    I enjoy the fixing-up bar at SB; it's an opportunity to encounter people I don't know in an active setting. Of course, I live in NoVA, not NJ; things are a little calmer here, no bumper cars.

    1. Do they also serve "unbrewed" coffee at Dunkin? What is that? Instant?

  2. Ah, yes. Brewed as opposed to espresso, is what I meant. In fact they do have instant, their "Via" product. But you have to buy that in packets, for use later. As instant goes, it's not bad, but I could only see it for emergency use.