Let me tell you about a place called Victorian’s. It was a little, independent cafe in Victorian Village, a tiny neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio where Ohio State University campus rubbed up against the equally tiny, “hip” part of town called The Short North. After I moved from Columbus Victorian’s got bought up by an ambitious so-and-so who had dreams of turning it into a proper restaurant/music venue, sinking the locale in the space of a year or so. But when I was still in corny, old Ohio, Vic’s was a poorly lit purveyor of weak coffee, bland food and just enough charm to overcome its drabness. It was staffed by tragically apathetic people and frequented by a mix of drunks and pretentious college kids. It was, in a word, depressing.
It was also the best damn cafe the capital city of Ohio could muster.
I began to ponder Victorian’s again after sitting down for an interview with a local Seattle filmmaker for my gig at The Capitol Hill Times. He insisted, in no uncertain terms, to meeting in any neighborhood cafe that wasn’t a chain. But that’s not what he actually meant. In fact, the place he suggested and where we ultimately met was itself part of a chain– it was just a local rather than a national chain. Really, when Seattleites get picky about their coffee (which they/we often do), they aren’t directing their ire for chain stores at the many local and national chains in the city. They don’t get uppity about Caffe Vita, a homegrown chain with a handful of stores around the greater metro area. They certainly aren’t talking about the light distribution of Victrola Coffee or Uptown Espresso shops. They aren’t even talking about Seattle’s Best or Tully’s. No, the contempt of familiarity goes to one target and one alone: Starbucks.
Yes, Seattle’s contribution to the world of multinational food sales is public enemy A #1 for anyone with even the narrowest of hipster streaks. It is, after all, a Seattleite’s privilege to be snooty about coffee. Like any major city, there are literally hundreds of independent, mom-and-pop cafes to choose from. Pick any given neighborhood and you’ll find your preferred bookish cafe, your pricey bakery cafe, your charming ethnic cafe or your wine and coffee cafe. It’s a glorious reason to sniff at the likes of Starbucks, but I’m here to defend that giant, standardized, bean-burning corporation for the good, yes, good it does for the nation.
Let’s go back to Victorian’s. When it was still sucking the life from young English majors, Vic’s was the one option in literally miles for those who wanted a cafe that wasn’t Starbucks. The next best option? Bob Evans, the Ohio answer to Denny’s (which is also available across the highways of Ohio). This isn’t a comment on the cultural black hole of Ohio, at least not directly. The truth is, America outside its major cities and occasional cool college towns has long been ignorant of the proper cafe. For most folks in this wide, weird land, coffee comes from the diner or the Mr. Coffee at work and at home. That is, until Starbucks comes to town.
I’m not here to defend the coffee at Starbucks. Its best application, as far as I can tell, is in sweet, flavored drinks blended with ice that require only the most vague hint of a coffee background. I’m not even going to say that the atmosphere at the average Starbucks even approaches that of any proper, independent cafe. Starbucks isn’t here to compete with the indies. No, it sells an entirely different product. Starbucks sells the idea of the posh, inviting, sit-down cafe with fancy drinks and hip sensibilities, minus anything truly unfamiliar or adventurous about that. For the majority of the people living in America, the ones who live in towns neither large nor arty enough to support an indie cafe, Starbucks is what introduces whole generations to the world beyond the Mr. Coffee. It adds the terms “cappuccino” and “biscotti” to the vernacular through the guise of something that looks and operates much like a McDonald’s. Because, hey, if you want to sell something to suburbanites, make it a family-friendly drive-thru.
I know this may make me sound pretentious and dismissive, that this all sounds like backhanded praise for the biggest cafe chain in the world, but my sentiments are informed by two solid decades in a town with nary a decent, let alone good, cafe. Culture has to come to people in baby steps. Dropping a groovy cafe, an art gallery and a tapas restaurant next door to the Home Depot won’t suddenly turn Middle America into Paris or, hell, even Portland. Starbucks is the bridge between the diner drip and the double-shot latte. You’d be thankful for it, too, if you found yourself craving caffeine beside a cornfield.