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Why is Starbucks Bad?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for HittingEject.com where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

There’s a lot of hate for the world’s largest coffee chain, aka Starbucks. Charbucks, Starsucks, and other colorful names have been attributed to Starbucks, but if you ask people why they dislike Starbucks, they may not be able to offer many reasons beyond “it tastes burnt” and “it’s too expensive”. But if it’s so bad, how did it become the biggest in the world? Why do people think Starbucks is so terrible?

Starbucks is aggressive, sneaky, and disrespectful to communities and employees – sometimes. They offer great benefits and have worked to do better, but it’s often undercut by their other practices. Also, their coffee is burnt.

But, as with most things, there is more to the picture than can be summarized in a single paragraph. Below, I go into the reasons that many people detest what the Mermaid stands for.

Their Prices and Quality are Bad

Not to beat a dead horse too much, but they are a relic of a bygone era. If you recall from my post on the waves of coffee, they were actually considered affordable and higher quality. Apparently, this is how they rose to such prominence.

Unfortunately for them, if they had entered the market now, they would not be considered very good. In fact, this is essentially what happened to them in Australia.

While this may also belong under the “Aggressive” subheader, it also applies to their prices and quality.

The Australian Mishap

A new Starbucks opens every 15 hours in China and thrives. And yet, it largely fell flat in Australia. Why? 

Beginning in Sydney, they quickly expanded to over 80 stores within a couple of years of opening. They rolled out real quickly – far from being a strength, analysts attributed this rapid expansion to being why they faltered.

You see, they believe that the Starbucks culture, which was more of an American way of doing things – coffee as a commodity, get in and out for a quick caffeine fix (aka second wave) – was not the way of the land down under. 

The Australians were more like the Europeans, choosing to go to a café for a sit-down and relax with a friend over a cuppa. They also had a tradition of much better coffee, again borrowing from the Europeans.

Enter Starbucks. It was more expensive, lower quality, and just forcing itself on everyone. Why go to a soulless invasive species, like the cane toad, when you can go to a local who is better adapted to local tastes, more affordable, and higher quality (like the… kangaroo?).

Further, they believe that Starbucks was like a needy friend who was always down no matter what and begged for attention – they were too available. When they closed over ~70 of their ~80 stores in 2008, Australia yawned and reached for their local barista’s brews.

For more info, here’s a video on the topic.

This is not an isolated incident, as they seem to assume they could steamroll through and everything would work out. Which leads us to…

Starbucks is Sneaky

As mentioned in my post about Starbucks being addictive, they have been flying under the radar with small cafés that are pretending to be independent but are essentially the same as Starbucks. The most famous examples are “15th Avenue Coffee & Tea” and “Roy Street Coffee & Tea”, both in Seattle, WA. 

All of these sneaky “independent” shops have “Inspired by Starbucks” in the windows – as though it’s merely inspired and not owned by the same masters. Hell, you can even use your Starbucks cards there.

Not only that, but they have a history of repeatedly opening locations, particularly in the UK, without permission from the local planning boards. Good neighbors, eh?

In case you’re wondering which locations, apparently Hertford (one year), Manchester, Cardiff, Pinner, Harrow, and two in Edinburgh.

Some gall they have – they were told they couldn’t open on one street because it already had too many cafés. What did they do? They pretended they were a retail store that sold sandwiches and mugs. They removed their tables and chairs so that it appeared to be a retail store, but… well, it’s still a coffee shop.

In Lewisham, they operated as a restaurant when it only had a license for four seats. There was considerable backlash from the community because it was, apparently, a cultural conservation area. Starbucks reclassified itself as a takeaway outlet to get them off their backs. They still operate there today! Funny, no?

Either Starbucks doesn’t give a crap about the UK, or the UK seems to be unable or unwilling to stop them.

Just imagine what they’d do if there were no rules.

Starbucks’ Ethics can be Questionable or Flimsy

While Starbucks and its defenders will say that they put the money to good use, like I pointed out in this article, I think people misinterpreted that article as me defending the chain. Far from it, I just believe in giving the devil his due.

Environmentalism

They are very proud of their 10% recycled paper in their cups, and yes, that’s often 10% more than other stores. The catch is that their own cups aren’t recyclable. Good that they’re putting in an effort, but if it costs more to the environment to do so… what’s the point?

Tips

Shift managers were taking a cut of every tip given in certain locations. This means that when you think you’re tipping your favorite friendly barista, you’re, in fact, lining management’s pockets. 

In California, a court ruling stated that the chain had to pay out over $100M in back pay. Even though tipping policies like this are illegal in some states, it continues nationwide.

If you want more dirt on them, here’s an article from 2014 that goes further into their tipping debacles.

Unions

Starbucks is no fan of unions. Like many giant corporations of our day, they do everything they can to intimidate, weasel, and union-break their way out of them.

There was one successful union win, but it happened in New Zealand. They were pushing for higher wages, secure hours, and the elimination of “youth” rates for employees. 

They won, and Starbucks agreed to raise wages, better hour security, and higher youth rates – but still youth rates. So, these younger folks can do the job the same as the other employees, but it’s ok to pay them a lower rate? Right.

Firearms and Weak Stances

Starbucks allows firearms in its stores. I’m not stating whether this is good or not, but they claim to be against this.

Some states allow open and concealed carry, but in those same states, there are many large chains that have an opinion and stand by it, including Bonefish, Buffalo Wild Wings, Carrabba’s, Chili’s, Chipotle, Chuck E Cheese, Hooters, Jack in the Box, Maggianos, Outback Steakhouse, Panera Bread, Peet’s Coffee, and Waffle House.

Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, posted an open letter on their website asking people not to bring guns to their stores, but then ends it by saying they’re not actually banning it.

“Hey, please don’t do whatever you want, but we won’t do anything if you choose to defy us.”

I can see why the Australians saw them as a needy, weak friend.

Starbucks is very Aggressive

Monopoly Tactics

Starbucks has gotten into hot water for anti-competitive behavior, which is to say they are pushing for a monopoly. It’s hard for them to deny this when they’ve been caught buying out competitor’s leases, or paying the building owners to refuse to rent to other coffee shops by offering to pay higher rent. Aka they were bribing landlords to block competition.

Starbucks Cluster Strategy

Starbucks became the butt of late-night TV and sitcoms for a reason. It’s all over the place and seems hard to escape in the US. 

Apparently, this is a purposeful strategy known as the “Starbucks Cluster”, operating multiple locations, sometimes at a loss, to overwhelm any competition they can’t buy out directly, such as in the previous point. Just business, I guess.

According to this site:

The company believed that opening multiple stores in the same area helped build the brand and also enhanced convenience for its customers. Because Starbucks utilized very little traditional advertising, it relied heavily on the actual stores to increase awareness of the brand. And multiple locations made it easier for customers to get Starbucks wherever they were.

What caused them to crumble in Australia was the key to their success in the US. One video talked about how Starbucks actually didn’t spend much on advertisement, but was something that people had heard of but never come across. Once the chain reached their location, they’d flock to it. Those were the early days, but I guess it still works in some places better than others. Seems laughable from today’s perspective.

Bad Coffee

And no list of why Starbucks sucks would be complete without addressing their actual beverages. They use everything at their disposal to get people hooked, either chemically, habitually, or socially.

And maybe that’s why they get away with having garbage coffee.

But it may lie more in its predictability and the other things they put into it.

Again, back at the end of the first wave, coffee was terrible – pure gut rot. Starbucks, at that time, was the only way for coffee enthusiasts to have a chance at better coffee. It was quality coffee for that era. But as I said earlier in this very post, it didn’t keep up with the times, quality-wise.

Not for lack of trying, they do have specialty roasting locations and experimental approaches to the beverage.

But, the fact that their average coffee is over-roasted because, back in that day, it was hard to find genuinely great coffee. So, roast deeply and burn away all the impurities and differences between beans. Done!

Conclusion

As I pointed out in my other post, Starbucks does treat its employees fairly well with their salaries, healthcare, and job security. They aim to have people stick around.

That being said, they don’t like unions, they disrespect local governments and heritage sites, and their stances are often flimsy grandstanding more than actual conviction.

People hate them because they are overpriced, and their coffee, which was good in its heyday, is no longer acceptable.

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