A Plea for Solidarity with People Who Don't Order Stuff at Starbucks

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What the late Lionel Trilling used to call the liberal imagination was captured by the plight of two black men who went to a Philadelphia Starbucks and didn’t order anything. The company said 8,000 Starbucks stores would close for sensitivity training and the conscience of an anguished world pulsated with guilt and grief over the arrest of the two men, whose only offense was to stand there.

The two men were exactly right: The right thing to do in Starbucks is not to order anything, because the coffee is disgusting. Starbucks’ response, to be sure, was incommensurate with the problem: Rather than subject their employees to the ritual farce of sensitivity training, the company should spend money on high-quality coffee beans, and roast them lightly rather than burn them into acidic volcanic ash. The best coffee (namely Italian espresso) is not bitter, but bittersweet, like dark chocolate. High-quality Italian coffee (for example Illy or Lavazza) is widely available in American supermarkets, and the persistence of Starbucks in the face of higher-quality competition is a testimony to the poverty of the American palate.

Famously, Starbucks’ marketing idea is the “affordable luxury.” So-called craft beers are another case. Although Americans can make excellent beer (Blue Moon is a perfectly good Hefeweizen, for example), most of the craft beers contain far too much hops and are too bitter for human consumption. The “hoppy” quality of craft beer has the same effect as the burning of Starbucks coffee beans: It adds a flavor which is mistaken for sophistication, when it is merely unpleasant. Not one of the great German beers has the hops content of the typical craft beer.

The real victims of Starbucks are not the two black men who were arrested for standing around without ordering anything, but the customers who actually ordered Starbucks coffee. Who will speak up for them? The best way to respond to this outrage is to stop into whatever Starbucks outlet you happen to pass, and when asked what you want, say in a loud voice, “I don’t want anything! This coffee sucks!” See if they call the cops.