Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Forming Community Over Coffee: Devotion to Starbucks as Implicit Religion

In a bustling college town’s Starbucks fringing the edge of campus, pilgrims of all ages make the short trek to the frequently visited coffee shop, muttering nearly chant-like orders to the cashier—“Triple caramel macchiato!” or “Decaf white chocolate mocha!” –before awaiting expectantly before the altar-like counter for their caffeinated drink of life. For some, this is a nearly ritualistic experience, performed mindlessly on the way to class or before gathering with friends for an intimate conversation in the café’s corner. In Quoting God, Crumm noted the cathedral-like design of the coffee shop chain, with its broad center aisles bordered by seating areas, all leading toward the high-altar of the counter, where the liturgical rite of ordering is to be performed (251).

This is no mere coincidence, for several books published on the business techniques of Starbucks’ founders reveal an acute attention to the creation of a communal environment, akin to that traditionally sought out in organized religious or church-like settings. As founder and CEO Howard Schultz reveals in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built A Company One Cup At A Time, he was aware that the coffee shop had come to “fill a void in people’s lives” (89) because they had addressed what was an “unexpressed demand for romance and community” (53). Indeed, on Starbucks’ official website, the company’s mission is stated simply as to “inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time” and to “help make the world a little better.” Ironically, Christian living books like Leonard Sweet’s The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion note that practicing Christians can gain valuable lessons from observing Starbucks’ commitment to the ultimate authentic experience; he even jokingly refers to the chain as “St. Arbucks” for its extreme commitment to building community.

In The Starbucks Experience: Five Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, Joseph Michelli writes of how the company’s “Everything Matters” approach and attention to detail—from the store design to the carefully monitored friendliness and hospitality of its employees—“results in powerful emotional connections with customers” and an “experience [of] Starbucks as warm, comfortable, and pleasurable” (55). As one barista quoted in Michelli's book explained, she wants to make sure the coffee shop looks inviting, such that people will come and stay for a while (56). A frequent customer equated the experience as a “minivacation,” where she could relax, “catch up with an old friend, or escape after a stressful day at work” (56). Such language nearly equates Starbucks with a temporary retreat from worldly troubles, where spiritual peace can be achieved one paper cup at a time.

Because Starbucks has successfully molded itself to be an entire community-centered experience, more so than a product-focused cookie cutter business, it can viewed as a form of implicit religion. As Lord explains in her article, implicit religion “provide[s] a framework for understanding a secularly-based or non-traditionally motivated search for meaning” (217). This isn’t to say anyone is about to bow down in worship of a mug of piping hot java, but it is at least for some, the regular—even daily—quest and familiar routine of purchasing that mug of java and enjoying it in the trademark Starbucks environment provides structure and meaning to hectic lives.

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