This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

LET THEM DRINK (BURNT) COFFEE: The Starbucks invasion

The art of brewing coffee and the café culture that it engendered has long roots in France. The first café in Paris dates back to 1665. At the time of the Revolution, there were no fewer than 2,000 cafés in Paris. One could say that the Enlightenment was fuelled by caffein: Voltaire is said to have downed a dozen cups a day. During the Revolution, legendary establishments like the Café Procope (still in business) hosted stormy meetings by the likes of Robespierre, Danton and Marat. The nearby Café Les Deux Magots and Café Flore were favorite haunts of the Parisian intelligentsia—Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir wrote whole books while sitting at their sidewalk tables, sipping coffee, and chain-smoking Gauloises. Today, there are no fewer than 45,000 cafés in France. 

From all of this, one could conclude that the French know something about roasting, brewing, and drinking coffee. So why does an upstart, greedy, endlessly expansionist outfit out of Seattle—an outfit that burns its coffee beans  on the mistaken assumption that an espresso should taste like smoke, an outfit that commits the travesty of  serving coffee in cardboard cups, that adulterates this noble brew with soy milk and hazelnut syrup—why does such a company think it has a right to plant its all-too-familiar logo in France? 

There now some 50 Starbucks in France—the most recent one (pictured above) is located 200 yards from the chateau where Louis XIV was born in Saint Germain-en-Laye, just west of Paris. Where are the barricades? Where are the sans-culottes? Where are the legions of French cultural purists calling for boycotts and picketing these alien intruders? Nowhere to be found. The French will embrace this new outlet as they have embraced its predecessors. Like blue jeans, rock n' roll, action movies, and cheeseburgers, Starbucks will attract French consumers precisely because it is so...American. Not that the French particularly like Americans, or approve of American policies, or applaud American leadership of the so-called Western world. It's just that the American lifestyle is considered—especially by the young—to be modern, cool, hip, non-stodgy. And so the homogenization of world culture continues. 

Once upon a time, Napoleon's armies conquered most of Western Europe. Now the invasion is led by Starbucks, McDonalds and Disney. In Napoleon's day, at least, the conquered nations put up a fight. Now they blow down their own gates and line up for soy cappuccinos. Call me a snob, an apostate, whatever, I'd just prefer to sit at my local Café de l'Industrie, savor a real espresso, or express as the French call it, and read the papers.


  1. T,
    Thanks for that! Starbucks coffee is pathetic and not even close to the worth of rock and roll or blue jeans, but my own snobbery is towards local control. Any time a Starbucks or Barnes and Noble moves in on a local cafe or bookstore, I see red.

    1. Couldn't agree more, my
      friend. And, as far as I'm concerned, you can add iPads and iPhones to the list, but that battle is lost.