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Last of the Independents
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Not that I want to tell a multi-billion dollar company how to conduct business, but I do wish that Starbucks would back off a little with the chipper customer service. On a recent, bleary-eyed morning visit to the Lima Road site, I was so intimidated by the barrage of pleasant greetings from the counter person — How are you this morning?! What can we get started for you today? What sounds good? Would you like to try a new cinnamon apple scone?? — that I immediately turned on my heels and headed back to the door. On my way out I told the barista that I'd be back, but that I had to go get some coffee first, just to be clearheaded enough to answer her questions. Though it was barely six in the morning, the employee had obviously been mainlining espresso for a couple of hours and there was no way I could confront that much forced enthusiasm in a civil manner.
There's a lot to hate about Starbucks — in addition to the ruthless cheerfulness of their coffee preparers, the company is just too big, too successful, too much. Until the recent economic downturn, Starbucks had experienced phenomenal and virtually unchecked growth, with new outlets sprouting on virtually every city block. (From "The Onion," in 1998: "New Starbucks Opens in Rest Room of Existing Starbucks.") Aggressively marketed, and featuring pleasantly antiseptic and buyer-friendly stores, Starbucks upscaled the most basic of workingman's staples into a gourmet commodity that targeted the yuppie scum/soccer mom demographic. It's hard to root for a company like that. Starbucks has also been accused of practicing unfair trade and labor policies. And, worst of all, they sell Sting CDs at the counter.
As tacky as the Starbucks experience can be, though, I can't escape the fact that I toss a lot of money into their coffers. This is a galling admission, for I've always been a big proponent of supporting locally owned, independent businesses and restaurants. But whenever I visit a new city, I generally avoid the popular local hipster coffee shop and go straight to the familiar multi-national. I wish I could claim that my actions are committed for purely aesthetic reasons, that I so love the distinctive flavor of Starbucks that I ignore all others, but it's not true. I do like the taste of Starbucks, but frankly I'll take any coffee that's reasonable strong, and most local shops brew up a serviceable full-bodied blend. I choose Starbucks because it's safe, it's known, it's reliable. And though the servers are infuriatingly happy, smiley people, they rarely screw up my order.
And maybe the crass and commercial atmosphere at Starbucks might be one of its major selling points. The last independent coffee shop I tried, in Broad Ripple, in Indy, was just a little too damned cool for my sensibilities. The counter person — girl, 20's, with a (requisite?) bar code tattoo on her left arm — took a good 45 seconds to approach me and take my order, though I was the only person in line and the place was absolutely dead. She was pleasant enough, I guess, but wholly indifferent to quick service, and the relatively easy (I thought) task of steaming some milk and throwing it in a cup with coffee became a major ordeal. And when I asked her what music was being played on the CD player, she gave me a mildly condescending look, as if she couldn't believe I was so out of touch that I actually had to ask ("Deer" something. Deerhunter. DeerKiller. DeerBlaster. Something.) I got my coffee after an interminable five minute wait and got the hell out of there.
Well okay. Maybe I should give the girl a break. Maybe I caught her on a bad day. Everybody has one. Maybe she had just learned that her conceptual artist-boyfriend had gotten busted for heroin again. Maybe she discovered that her SXSW and Pitchfork visas had just expired. Whatever. I should cut her some slack. So the next day I went back, clean slate, and what do you know? Same drill. Same indifference. Same lethargy. Same interminable wait. The one difference? Bongos. There's a guy here playing bongos. It's 10am, it's Thursday, and there's a bearded guy playing bongos. It's like he's trying to live up to every stereotype about coffee houses that's existed since the Beat Generation. Granted, he's playing them quietly, so as not to offend the customers, but still, he's playing bongos. Suddenly the memory of the hyper attentive Starbucks girl with the big teeth is not so terrible.
I feel like I'm eating my young here, because I've spent much of the past two decades hanging out in coffee shops, doing poetry reading, meeting friends, writing fervently on too-soft couches. I did a one-man show at Firefly and it's one of my favorite memories. But now, for the most part, I only want formality, anonymity, quick service, strong coffee. I'm becoming a habitue of chains, chain coffee shops, chain restaurants. I'm far less interested in discovering those quaint "hidden gem" restaurants in the area than I ever used to be. I recognize that Fort Wayne has grown as a cosmopolitan restaurant town in the last five years, with many previously-unrepresented ethnic cuisines now being offered, yet I remain square and conservative in my personal tastes. I've tried many of the new, niche restaurants, and while I liked a lot of what I got, it's just too hit-or-miss. One negative dinner usually sends me scrambling back to the tacky, low-brow Middle-American "flair" joint.
Of course, I'll always have Henry's, the Oyster Bar, Los Lagos, and I usually don't go a week without a visit to King Gyros or Saigon. I'm sure you have your favorites in town as well, Ziffle's or Zestos or Cork 'N Cleaver. But I have to report that, for the first time in my life, there's a hostess at Applebee's who knows me by my first name.