The God of the Cardboard Cup

Starbucks as Religion

“Have you noticed the fervor of some of our customers?” I asked, mopping the floor in my green apron with a freshly minted master’s degree in theology. “It’s like drinking coffee from here is their religion.”

“We’ve got tradition, community, and ritual,” replied a fellow barista and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. “It fits.”

To this, I would add an explicit system of ethics, focused on care for all, and implicit belief system: the Cult of the Self.

The purpose of this essay is not to make the case that we can find religion and religion-like phenomena everywhere. To do so would be to risk diluting the term “religion” to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, the significance of this exercise is to demonstrate the potential connection between consumption and the transcendent, both real and illusory. What and how we drink forms part of the self we present to the world, how we perceive ourselves, and, in complex ways, who we truly are. You belong to what your worship, so drink with care.

The traditions of Starbucks are myriad. The stores mark the changing of the seasons. Individual stores trace their lineage nationally back to the mother store and locally back to whichever store came first. Old timers tell of the legend of chantico and the return of orange mocha Frappuccino. Some recall the evolution of the siren, which some hail as a neo-pagan deity, but which most recognize as merely a whimsical mythological creature capturing the spirit of fun and adventure, the antithesis of corporate America. Indeed, there is a distinctly countercultural strain in Starbucks’ corporate culture, though some anti-establishment types might see this as a veneer masking corporate hypocrisy. But I digress.

Coffee is just a pretext. The ultimate aim of Starbucks is to provide experience. Community is at the heart of that experience. Coffee is the perfect social beverage, the managers preach. It is appropriate for virtually any kind of gathering:  formal and informal, business and pleasure, romantic and Platonic and anything in between. Almost everyone loves coffee and there are viable alternatives for those who don’t. Drink in, take something to go, or take some beans to brew yourself: all are options offered to you at Starbucks to invigorate your social interactions. Even if you choose to drink your brew alone, Starbucks provides a place for you to do so in the company of others, alongside fellow partakers in the same family of beverages and assorted treats. For true devotees, the coffee itself and vocal celebration of it constitute much of the contents of their interaction with others in the throng of the caffeinated. Starbucks strives to provide a sanctuary so that customers can receive a comparable experience no matter where they go in the globe.

Starbucks lends itself to ritual. The company invites customers to make it a part of their routine. As a shift-supervisor for the better part of a year, I can attest to the habits of regulars: the morning rush commuters on drive-thru, the mid-morning business meeting types, the mid-afternoon takers of breaks who work within walking distance, the kids coming home from school, the evening rush commuters (including many of the morning folks), and the night time pre- and post-party people. Many have integrated their consumption and time at the store into their weekly, daily, or even twice daily routines, as if saying to themselves, “I get [drink X] right before/after I do [thing Y].” Even more customers integrate their purchases into their monthly or annual routines for the holidays or for special celebrations. With this cup we christen many of our moments, the visible sign to mark the invisible grace we yearn for in moments of joy, despair, and the mundane.

A deep humanitarian ethical vision defines the experience into which Starbucks invites its customers. As a customer, you are advancing the cause of justice by supporting fair systems of compensation for everyone at every point in the food-and-drink-chain. Baristas receive a decent hourly wage, at least compared to the norms of other food and beverage providers. Even part-time employees receive benefits, including health insurance. The sources of coffee are vetted to insure that the acquisition of the beans does not perpetuate injustice, either environmentally or economically. Like all institutions, there are doubtless ways in which Starbucks falls short of its own ideals, as some critics have been keen to point out. Yet, relative to the standards of the food service sector, the standards that Starbucks sets for itself and reaches are commendable. “St. Arbucks,” indeed.

There is a belief system implicit in Starbucks’ mode of operation, particularly in the arcane forms that drink orders can take. There are manifold combinations and the more complicated the drink, the deeper one finds oneself in the folds of the initiate, the priestly elite inhabited primarily by former baristas. My preferred order, for example, is a decaf tall non-fat upside-down latte. The effect of this is not merely exclusionary. It provides one with a sense of identity, as Tom Hanks’s character in “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) aptly points out: “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. […] So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self.” Furthermore, this sense of identity involves a sense of certitude and mastery. If you arrive at Starbucks and you know what you want, down to the minute details, selected out of a seemingly infinite array of possibilities, you know that no matter how out-of-control you may feel, you possess power over the contents of that little cup. The primary product that Starbucks sells is an illusion of control: you are the god of the cardboard cup.

2 Responses to “The God of the Cardboard Cup”

  1. Charlotte on

    One of the first places I’ll go when I get back to the States is Starbucks. Even down here, when we see one, if we can get to it, we go. I miss my local Starbucks!

    • georgefaithful on

      It is a special place. It has surprised me how often I end up going. Even though I know what the “magic” is made of, there are many times when no where else will do. Or times when I have Starbucks-level customer experience expectations that other places simply don’t match. Like letting me camp out there and get work done for only making a minimal purchase. There is a coffee shop shortage in my area.


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