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The McDonaldization of Starbucks

Cappuccino Rosetta latte artAh, the glorious rosetta, perfectly poured and beautifully adorning your cappuccino.  It is a sight to behold, and something even more enjoyable to sip.  Micro foamed milk perfectly incorporated with the crema from a shot of espresso, visually stunning to the point that you pause and admire before putting the cup to your lips. 

I had my first at Rohs Street Cafe in Clifton back on December 1, 2007.  Incidentally, it was also the day I first met my wife.  You could say it was a day that changed my life in more ways than one! 

But there is one place in Cincinnati that you are certain NOT to find latte art: Starbucks.   

I am grateful for Starbucks, I really am.  It was the Green Mermaid who delivered me from truck stop coffee and those gas station french vanilla lattes I used to drink. Between the years 2000 and 2008 I easily frequented Starbucks in 38 or more states and regularly brewed their coffee at home.  I was certifiably hooked. 

They are the specialty coffee gateway drug and the reason for much of the successful rise of specialty coffee in America.  I owe a lot to the Green Mermaid, so please do not mistake what I am about to say as Starbucks bashing.

Tamping for espresso shotToday, things have changed, and the Starbucks that many of us fell in love with in the 90s has since been replaced by a coffee version of the Golden Arches.  Yes, Starbucks has been McDonaldized. 

Gone are the days of real barista grinding, tamping and pulling shots for your drink.  Think about it.  When was the last time you heard those all too familiar sounds going on at the espresso bar?  If you think it was recently, then you have not been paying attention. 

For the past several years, Starbucks employees "pull shots" of espresso by pressing a button.  That is it.  Place shot glass under porta filter, press button, wait.  The machine does all of the work, on the inside, where you can't even see it happening.  Fully automatic.  No skills involved, unless you count applying your index finger to a button a skill.  No need to dial in your grind, weigh out your grounds, apply the perfect amount of pressure to your tamp, or carefully monitor the time of your extraction.  How wonderful!

Starbucks Barista doing customer service in coffee shopBeing a barista at Starbucks used to mean learning marketable coffee industry skills that you could carry with you to other jobs.  You had to know what you were doing because making espresso drinks can be extremely unpredictable and challenging.  There was a sense of pride in being the barista behind the bar pulling your shots and making your drinks because it really did take skills that took months, even years, to learn well. 

This is what we fell in love with.  Real people makingour drinks.  It was personal; it was intimate, and we felt connected. 

But the company that brought the term Barista to America have essentially taken all of the baristas skills, once celebrated, out of their stores.  All in the name of progress.  All in the name of "specialty" coffee.  Well, I gotta tell you, there is little of anything "special" left to what ends up in your cups these days.  At this point, excellent branding is carrying the day, not drink quality.  In fact, I would go as far to say that, if you walked into an independent cafe you had never heard of before and got the same quality latte, that you would think twice about going back for another $4.00+ drink.

I could say more, but I think you get the point.  So, here's my question... with so many legit cafes around town, why are so many folks still going for the siren call of the Mermaid?  If McDonalds has taught us anything, it is that Americans are addicted to convenience and predictability to the point that we will give up quality in order to stay in our cars and have something easy.  Sad but true. 

If you want to enjoy a great cappuccino and experience latte art in Cincinnati, check out Rohs Street Cafe in Clifton, Collective Espresso in OTR, Corner Bloc Coffee in Price Hill , Dojo Gelato at Findlay Market and even Coffee Emporium downtown.     

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