A San Francisco Police Department police cruiser parked outside a Starbucks cafe (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

March 31, 2021   6 mins

Travelling in the United States, it took me some time to work out why coastal Americans get so worked up about “good coffee”, a drink which is easy to get hold of even in provincial Europe. It wasn’t until I explored what denizens of both coasts call “flyover country“, and experienced the fluid known as “gas station coffee”, that this near-religious obsession with its “good” variant made sense.

The fact that “good” as opposed to “gas station” coffee exists at all in the Land of the Free is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as the 1950s, the coffee trader Alfred Peet arrived in California and asked: “I came to the richest country in the world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?”

By the mid-sixties, he had set up Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Berkeley — and not long after that, he met Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker, university friends who dreamed of opening a coffee-roasting business. The three learned the method from Alfred Peet and then, 50 years ago this week, opened the first branch of their own gourmet coffee shop in Seattle. They named it Starbucks.

By 1987, when the three founders sold the company to Howard Schulz, they had six Seattle outlets. Schulz, though, had bigger dreams: by the time the company went public in in 1992, Starbucks had 140 outlets and annual revenues of over $73m. Six years later, the chain cruised into the UK market with the purchase of 56 “Seattle Coffee Company” stores, just in time to catch Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” wave.

The British reaction to appealing-but-invasive cultural phenomena from across the Atlantic is usually ambivalent, and my dim recollection of Starbucks’s arrival is that it was no exception. Its blonde wood and exposed brick aesthetic carried a faint whiff of the “Central Perk” aspirational lifestyle we’d all inhaled via innumerable episodes of Friends. And yet many of my circle felt there was something creepy about the identikit outlets and standardised chumminess. Equally, though, buying a coffee in late 1990s Britain was a game of roulette, that could result in anything from a cup of acrid instant to a sludgy filter brew. Starbucks was at least reliable.

So if the feeling toward Starbucks was officially grudging, it was also covertly appreciative, like turning up to a glamorous friend’s party and complaining about the music while filling your handbag with canapĂ©s. But perhaps we were right to be grudging. For in a sense Starbucks has sold back to us a deracinated, virtual form of something that’s inseparable from the birth of modern Britain: the public sphere.

Britain in the 1990s had little in the way of cafĂ© culture, but 1690s Britain very much did. The first English coffee house was set up in Oxford around 1650, by a Greek named Pasqual RosĂ©e. The new drink rapidly became popular, and the Londoner Thomas Rugge claimed that by the late 1650s coffee was “sold almost in every street”.

Coffee houses soon became hubs across the country for a new, radically egalitarian public life, open to all comers. In 1673, one pamphleteer described how in a coffee house “oft you may see a silly fop, and a worshipful justice, a griping rook
 a reverend Nonconformist, and a canting mountebank, all blended together”. They were also hotbeds of political radicalism: Charles II was so concerned about their role fomenting dissent that he tried to ban them in 1675. And in 1696, Jonathan’s coffee house in London became notorious as the meeting-place for members of a plot to assassinate William III.

By the early eighteenth century, coffee shop culture was the epicentre of social and commercial life. The insurer Lloyds of London had its origins in Lloyds coffeehouse, while Jonathan’s had, by the turn of the century, become the centre of London’s emerging financial services market: public lists of stock and commodity prices were posted there, turning a coffee-shop into the City’s first embryonic trading floor.

Coffee also fuelled art, literature and scandal. Buttons coffee house, founded in 1712 by Joseph Addison, housed a white marble letterbox in the shape of a lion’s head believed to have been designed by William Hogarth. Visitors were invited to post tips, news, gossip and other interesting content into the letterbox and the best would be printed in Addison’s Guardian newspaper (no relation to its current namesake).

Over time, the artistic, commercial and political spheres that blossomed in England’s 17th and 18th-century coffee houses were formalised and shifted away into their own official premises. This fuelled the creation of modern London’s magnificent architecture, from the City to the Palace of Westminster, Whitehall to Theatreland. Lloyds of London is still going — now in its own iconically ugly skyscraper on Leadenhall Street. And the trading club that formed at Jonathan’s persisted after the building burned down, eventually creating their own premises which became the London Stock Exchange.

Today, though, our commercial, artistic and political lives are increasingly independent of any physical place. The tips, gossip and witticisms that went into the Buttons letterbox now get posted to Twitter; the stock tips traded at Jonathan’s are now shared on the day-trader forums of Reddit or Wallstreetbets. Meanwhile, political radicalism happens on Discord or (when it’s not facing Charles II-like efforts to ban it) Parler.

Public life takes place online; and much of its spadework is increasingly done by lone individuals, staring at laptops in today’s reboot of coffee house culture, of which the Platonic Form is Starbucks. And in this we’re seeing the fruition of that indefinable something that made people uneasy when Starbucks first arrived.

Because although it delivered reliable coffee, there was always something unsettling about Starbucks. At the time, my social circle was much given to anti-capitalist protest; we lumped together Starbucks with McDonald’s, that longstanding byword for crass Americanisation among old-school reactionaries and anti-capitalists alike.

But Starbucks wasn’t just McDonald’s for coffee. Whether or not you like a Big Mac, the McDonald’s brand is genuinely classless: populist in palate, affordable in price, tolerant even of life’s outsiders. Chris Arnade has written movingly about how McDonald’s branches are today a meeting-point for the lonely, impoverished and left-behind people of “back-row America”.

Starbucks, on the other hand, sold an image of affordably hygienic detachment from all such messy human dregs. This new aesthetic, as placeless as an airport departure lounge, is best described with a word that’s often used in a positive way by advocates of a future where this detachment is taken to its logical extreme: “frictionless”.

The stereotypical frictionless person is neatly but unobtrusively dressed, works from a laptop anywhere in the world and pays contactless for everything. What the Starbucks brand offered was entry-level frictionlessness; an environment with reliable drinks, a standardised “third space” with WiFi and — crucially — a zone purged of modernity’s losers, such as drunks, provincials and the homeless. This table-stakes frictionlessness was designed to be just cheap enough for the new proletariat of the virtualised world: students and gig-economy laptop workers.

In other words, the company updated 18th-century coffee-house public life for the virtual age by creating standardised zones, each of which could be anywhere in the world. It offered spaces tailor-made for those who wish to participate in a public life that, even by the early noughties, was increasingly moving online, and who wished to do so from anywhere in the world.

So what, you might ask. But this severing of life from place isn’t just an aesthetic matter. Beneath the rollout of identikit coffee-shops and the geographic uprooting of the laptop class lies a question with a real-world punch: who cashes in? My friends in the “Space Hijackers” anti-gentrification campaign were calling out Starbucks twenty years ago for driving competitor establishments out of business by subsidising under-performing stores until local competitors folded. To the Hijackers, the synthetically chummy Starbucks aesthetic was a paper-thin veneer for a rapacious form of capitalism indifferent to local texture.

Two decades later, it’s clear that this combination of standardisation, convenience and the use of aggressive corporate practices to eliminate local, independent competition has become a classic template for success in the digital age. Ride-hailing app Uber, for example, based its whole growth plan on using fundraising to subsidise fares so as to drive other players (read: independent taxi firms and self-employed drivers) out of the market.

This approach to commerce rejects all allegiance to place, seeking not just to destroy local independents but also to minimise national tax liabilities. That’s principally how Starbucks paid just ÂŁ4m in UK tax in 2019 despite raking in ÂŁ387m in sales. It’s not just Starbucks either: in 2019, HMRC began investigating Uber for tax avoidance, while the Government also hopes to close a tax loophole routinely employed by Big Tech to evade tax by paying “royalties” to divisions based overseas.

But even as national governments increasingly crackdown on these new, frictionless oligarchs, the goalposts continue to move. In 2018, for example, Starbucks began restructuring away from city-centre outlets toward online ordering and drive-through. Thanks to the internet, even the standardised, placeless places Starbucks brought to our high streets are becoming redundant.

And here, perhaps, lies the clue as to why all those noughties protests against Starbucks had no impact, despite being accurate in their diagnosis. The protests focused on Starbucks; but Starbucks was never the problem. The homogenising force that first stripped the localism from coffee shops and is now digitising Starbucks outlets was never the coffee chain.

It was the internet itself. One day, we may want our neighbourhoods — our places — back. If so, we may find ourselves wrestling with how to unplug it. Or if we even can.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.