Can Starbucks Really Offer 'Value' With a Straight Face?

Although previously so ubiquitous that one comedian joked about a new Starbucks opening near him -- within his local Starbucks -- the company began downsizing and cutting costs. Late last year, under pressure from conservation groups, Starbucks changed its policy that required stores to keep water constantly running to rinse the stirring spoons. Ending this practice, they said, was a "green" decision, but the reality is that it also saved them millions of dollars. Then Starbucks began laying off management employees, a move that would have been unthinkable during its time of rapid expansion. For the first time ever, Starbucks began contracting. It closed more than 600 stores in the second half of 2008. People who'd held a "Starbucks fantasy" of quitting their corporate jobs to become baristas realized it was just that that -- a fantasy. To continue shaving expenses, Starbucks announced it would stop brewing fresh decaf every 30 minutes after noon as part of its plan to shave $400 million in expenses.

Now Starbucks hopes to woo back budget-minded consumers by offering a "value meal" pairing breakfast foods with a coffee drink.

The $3.95 deal includes one of four hot sandwiches -- currently sold at half of Starbucks' U.S. locations -- and a tall, drip coffee. Also offered for that price is a tall latte and either a slice of cinnamon swirl coffee cake or a bowl of oatmeal.

At first, I greeted this news with joy. I could return to drinking Starbucks lattes and get a good deal! But, like a double shot of espresso, my excitement eventually wore off. Even assuming I'd be interested in a sugary, carb-loaded breakfast -- which I'm not -- how on earth am I supposed to eat oatmeal while driving the kiddies in my minivan? Wait, I'm not supposed to drive while eating it? Doesn't Starbucks get how busy life is these days?

Then there's the matter of timing. At McDonald's I can get a latte whenever I want, any time of day. Sure, it took quite a bit of time to get the clerks at my local McDonald's to realize that a plain ol' latte is not the same thing as a vanilla-flavored one, and that I really don't want them adding sugary syrup to mine. But they've learned, and I'm happier for it since now I don't have to make separate trips to McDonald's and Starbucks to satisfy all the occupants of my minivan.

But there's something else served up with that McDonald's McCafe latte, with its cup cleverly designed to look more upscale than the fast food chain's usual fare. It's proof that I, too, am contributing to our household's attempts to cut costs. Were I walking around with the green mermaid in my hand, I'd be practically announcing that I'm putting my personal habits ahead of our family's efforts to save money. That McDonald's cup, with its lower-priced contents, shows that I'm cutting back, too. Sure, I could save even more money by forgoing the java juice altogether, but that's not going to happen. Starbucks turned me into an addict, and now I'm bent on getting my fix. I'm willing to compromise and get the McDonald's latte if it means I can stay caffeinated.

And no sickly sweet cinnamon bun or oatmeal is going to convince me that an overpriced latte bearing Starbucks' green mermaid logo is a better savings than the green left in my wallet at the end of the day.