How to hack Starbucks.

Culture and technology.
Aug. 15 2007 7:02 PM

Hacking Starbucks

Where to learn about the ghetto latte, barista gossip, and Nicole Kidman's usual.

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And then there are the more high-concept hacks. In 2006, digital media artist Cory Arcangel computed the Starbucks center of gravity—i.e., "the exact place you can stand in Manhattan and be closest to ALL Starbucks"—to be somewhere around Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. This summer, comedian Mark Malkoff visited all 171 Starbucks outlets in Manhattan in one day and made a funny video out of it. (Key detail: At one point, he has to bribe a barista $80 for a piece of pound cake.) The earnest Winter deserves mention here, too—he's a one-named lad determined to visit every Starbucks in the world.

Romenesko, reached on the phone at an independent coffee shop in Evanston, Ill., speculates that some of the Starbucks stunts are fueled by dreams of becoming the next Jared Fogle, the guy who lost weight by eating exclusively at Subway and went on to become a pitchman for the chain. My theory is that the stunts testify to the totality of Starbucks: It's become a fixture, a sort of cultural Mount Rushmore that's found throughout movies (coming soon: Tom Hanks in How Starbucks Saved My Life), sitcoms (see this viral Curb Your Enthusiasm clip), and popular culture. All Starbucks jokes, attacks, and references merely swell the black hole of Starbucks.

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The store also seems to engender grandiose statements like that one. Ron Rosenbaum put academic Stanley Fish through the blender on Slatefor an egregious example of coffee-shop extrapolation. But lots of sharp, egghead analysis of the store can be found on the Web. The best comes from the so-called Professor Latte at Temple University: a man named Bryant Simon who's working on a book that promises to be the definitive American Studies take on Starbucks. In an 18-minute lecture on YouTube, Simon breaks down the Starbucks appeal into three categories: functional (caffeine is addictive), emotional (Starbucks is self-gifting), and the "expressive" category. We buy Starbucks to show others that we are "someone who can afford luxury." Simon also has a great take on the oft-mocked "half-decaf no whip" language. The Starbucks lingo capitalizes on an America filled with people who are "desperate for belonging," he says, and Starbucks is in the business of creating a community of belonging. That's why the baristas ask us for our names, and also why we should question that small swell of pride we feel when we correctly order our venti soy no water 20 pump chai.

True: That drink was actually purchased and consumed in a Starbucks. The baristas do keep track of weird orders, and sometimes they write about the most obscene ones on the LiveJournal Barista's community:

the gross drink of the night at my store: a triple grande pomegrante fruit juice frap. ew ew ewww. the guy drank it like it was the best thing on earth. there was a little left over in the blender so my coworker and i tried it and i couldn't even swallow it - it was so acidic it burned my mouth. ew.

The journal entries are what you would expect: venting about annoying customers, venting about psychotic managers, wondering if the new breakfast sandwiches are being rolled out in Ohio, and discussion of performance reviews in bureaucratic language ("my spectacular performance was what HELD ME BACK from SS, because she didn't want to lose my use to the shift team"). Reading several hundred entries feels like working at a Starbucks for a day. What surprised me was the lack of cynicism about the place. Many of the baristas do think of themselves as "partners" (as employees are called) and speak with pride of their stores. They tend to defend Starbucks against the legions of Starbucks-haters out there. They also seem to enjoy the benefits of the almost medieval guild that they belong to, which allows them to move between cities with ease and fall back on their espresso skills if a new job doesn't pan out.

So, what did I learn after all my browsing into various Starbucks subcultures? To paraphrase an idea of professor Simon, the chain is the matrix of coffee. You either define yourself as part of the Starbucks community or as someone "who doesn't do Starbucks." But, repeatedly, the key to all-around Starbucks happiness turned out to be simple: If you do buy coffee there, leave a tip.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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