Starbucks and the Red Cup of Conquest

Starbucks and the Red Cup of Conquest November 12, 2015

It suddenly occurred to me that I’m endorsing Starbucks on this blog by sporting a photo of its logo behind the title. If that helps win me a reputation for staying calm through cultural upheaval, that’ll be lovely. At this point, most of the people I know are pretty devout Christians, the kind who name their kids after Church fathers and get defensive about celebrating Halloween. None of them is exercised at having to drink from a plain red cup. But that doesn’t mean this Joshua Feuerstein character is speaking for himself alone, or that his crankishness formed in a vacuum.

Caffeine is a drug, and coffee drinkers often rival cultists in the intensity of their attachments and enthusiasms. Imagine if you were a Christian crackhead, and the manufacturer of your glass dicks suddenly stripped the veil of dignity from your habit by removing the snowpimps from its holiday line. You’d feel as though the earth had shifted on its axis, wouldn’t you? So, please, show a little patience.

Personally, I don’t touch coffee. I get my energy boosts from Diet Coke or Diet Mountain Dew. In a pinch, I’ll go with Diet Dr. Pepper. Being an outsider to this controversy with no brand loyalties (aside from the one thrust on me five years ago by the Patheos tech person), I am able to see something quite amazing.

First, a recap of some well-known history. The first Starbucks dates back to 1971 and sold only whole roasted beans. In 1987, the name was purchased by Howard Schulz, who began opening full-service coffee houses outsides Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. In 1992, the company’s stock went public. By the end of the 1990s, the corporation had planted its flag in Japan and the UK. Over the first decade of the new millennium, it expanded into South America and Russia, and bought out most of the stores belonging it its rival Diderich Coffee. Today, with over 23,000 stores in 65 countries, Starbucks girds the globe, as immune to the sunset as Queen Victoria’s empire.

But back in the early oughts, just after Starbucks had won its Battle of Plassey by buying Seattle’s Best Coffee and Torrefazione Italia from AFC Enterprises, its brand retained a certain stigma with the salt-of-the-earth Americans inhabiting flyover country. This I know because I used to hang out on a conservative message board popular with such people. For millennials and folks with short memories, message boards were like comboxes, except people were better-advised to be nice to one another, and you could pick up broads if you knew what you were doing. In short, they preserved a glimmer of that fading intangible: a sense of community.

To help reinforce these bonds in the midst of so much japery at Howard Dean’s expense, not to mention soul-searching over why Britney Spears’ parents had let her wander so far outside the Christian fold, the board maintained a thread where members introduced more light-hearted topics. The death notices of sitcom stars from the Golden Age of Television were sure to end feuds, as onetime enemies posted adjacent messages reading, “Goodbye, Mr./Mrs. So-and-So, and thanks for all the laughs.”

Polls were also surefire team-builders. A typical specimen required respondents to choose the Biggest Conservative Hunk in Hollywood from a list that included Clint Eastwood, Kelsey Grammer, and Mel Gibson. (I forget who won.) Then one day someone demanded to know: “Best Donuts in America: Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or Krispy Kreme?”

Krispy Kreme won handily. Dunkin’ Donuts, my own choice, polled a distant second. Starbucks rallied almost no support. The results were simple to interpret from a cultural point of view. Headquartered in blood-red North Carolina, Krispy Kreme heaped on the glaze and frosting with a free hand – an expression of the same down-home aesthetic whose standard Paula Deen once bore. Dunkin’ Donuts had a Northeastern, blue-collar appeal. It was the kind of place a member of New York’s Finest might while away a cold morning. But Starbucks? That was pure foppery. Eat a donut from that place, held the unspoken consensus, and you might as well become an Episcopalian or a human shield for Saddam.

But the real dog-that-didn’t-bark evidence of Starbucks’ murky reputation was the fact that nobody, in all the years I posted there, ever thought to start a poll about its coffee. Declaring a strong preference for any brand or blend would have been instant social death. You want coffee? Buy yourself a can of Maxwell House, Pierre. Or go to the diner across the street. They must’ve taught you Greek in that fancy college you went to, so you’ll be able to talk to the hairy guy taking orders. Haw, haw, haw.

Boy howdy. Times sure have changed. In a revolution of taste to rival the triumph of the miniskirt, on-fire Christians have gotten hooked on Starbucks just like everyone else. Maybe this is a sign of that emerging church everyone keeps talking about. If I saw it in a King of the Hill episode, I would laugh. Now I wonder what country I’m living in.

But look! Dunkin’ Donuts is now working that angle with its own line of very festive holiday cups. Yes, Dunkin’, go. Give them some of that old-time religion.

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