Local Beans

Let’s talk about something mundane. Coffee.

Wait? What? Coffee’s not mundane, you sonofa—— you might be thinking. I actually agree with you. I drink a lot of coffee. I prefer dark roast, like a French roast. I normally grind my own beans and sometimes even use my French press. Something of a coffee guy I may be. It’s not as snobby as my beer tastes (I have a growler of an Oatmeal IPA waiting for me this weekend), but it is somewhat there.

Anyway, the reason that I bring up coffee is to discuss Starbucks and what I am calling for the sake of this post, the Starbucks Effect. It may or may not be a real thing. I am messing with ideas here.
I don’t like Starbucks’s Coffee. Usually I get it simply as a last resort, rather than going to a gas station. In fact, McDonald’s would rank even higher in all actuality. But people do like Starbucks, both for their coffee and their other products. There’s also an aesthetic to the stores. Heck, I like it. I do enjoy the coffee shop vibe. Whether I like or dislike the coffee at Starbucks is immaterial. In a way there’s a comfort in knowing that whether I travel to Indiana, Florida, California, Mississippi, or am at home in Chicago, I can go to a Starbucks and know exactly what I am going to get. (A note here: if I go anywhere near where there’s a Wawa, Starbucks what?) Starbucks are not quite everywhere, but damn there’s a lot of them around.

In my travels, I’ve generally gotten them to fill my coffee needs. It’s not the most enjoyable experience other than the staff often being very friendly. I choke the coffee down though because I am an addict. Starbucks, if anything, is reliable.

But there’s gotta be more out there right?

A few weeks ago, my wife introduced me to a coffee shop located in Naperville. Already familiar with a few of the local coffee shops, I was perfectly happy to go. Because I brew coffee for myself at home, my visits to any local shop is rare. It’s just circumstance. Sweetwaters Cafe is not a small local place necessarily. It’s a small chain with only 42 current locations. That’s compared to 32,660 Starbucks as of 2020. Sweetwaters’s coffee was damn good. Yep. It served too as a reminder that there are other places out there.

So in my most recent trip I traveled to Indiana started with a stop at Starbucks… I had some trouble this time even choking it down. Then I went to McDonald’s the next morning. It’s OK. I mean, to me McDonald’s is kindof local being that the headquarters is located in Chicago, but still, even McDonald’s is just meh. I decided then and there I had to find another spot to get my daily coffee while I was in Indiana.

Enter a place I found through scanning the online maps for coffee shops. Five Lakes is a very local, small chain store with only 7 locations (soon to be 8). After a coworker said her husband loves the place, I took a shot. I now love the place too. (I had a Sumatra blend for my coffee the morning of my writing this and it was fantastic.)

My whole diatribe about coffee has a point. During and after that whole lockdown and virus thing (oh wait, it’s still going), there’s been a call for people to support local businesses over and over again. But how? What’s local? There’s a ton of what we might consider “American” companies such as McDonald’s or Starbucks, yes. Unfortunately, these companies were far more able to leverage their size to maintain their stance where in many cases those smaller places didn’t have the resources available to hold out. And of those who have, it’s almost more important to continue to keep them thriving.

Now, the Starbucks Effect (see, I got back to it), is where a company gets to a point where it is so pervasive in the cultural zeitgeist that it almost becomes synonymous with the thing it sells. Want a coffee? Starbucks! Going to buy a book (or just about anything)? Amazon! It gets to a point where you almost don’t even think that there’s another place out there that might even be better — you just go to Starbucks.

These big corporations are easy. I’ll admit that there’s been a few times I’ve just hit up the new Amazon Fresh rather than go to the (not quite as big but still a big chain) grocery store nearby because it is easier. And the fact that anyone can order just about anything off Amazon online and it’s there sometimes the same day. It’s easy to go to Amazon or Walmart or Target or [insert big named company here]. Convenience is key.

Don’t even get me started on publishing or banking (publishing being the worst of them all — just kidding, but it is pretty bad). These companies have all been big enough to leverage their size to stifle competition by hook or by crook. One can almost say that they were smart to play the game they did to come out on top of the pandemic, such as Amazon had. But is it fortune when somehow the big company is able to leverage itself against the demands of the government to end up being one of the only options available for people to go?

Bigger isn’t always better. And I have many things I can say about Amazon in particular, the point here isn’t to trash these large companies.

These large businesses do have a place. For many, having those 32,660 different locations of Starbucks wherever they go is a haven for them, giving them a reliable place to get their coffee in the morning so they don’t have to stress out over how they are going to get their caffeine fix or how the cup of coffee in the local gas station is going to taste. It’s nice knowing that if you go certain places, you can count on getting what you expect, whether you are in suburban Chicago or a small town somewhere else.

Those small businesses are good too. For the morning coffee I got a 24oz coffee for less at Five Lakes than I normally pay to get my 20oz Venti Pikes or Dark roast. Wait? I thought that bigger meant more leverage for lower prices? Not always so. In fact, I am starting to think that once a company hits a certain size, the opposite then becomes true.

Small businesses also means that it’s your friends. Your neighbors. Citizens in the town you live. Each trying to make it on their own by offering something worth buying for their own neighbors. If you can, give it a shot to support them. Give them a shot. Take a little wind out of the sails of those giants up there by pushing your money elsewhere. It might not be much, but that daily coffee I get when I am traveling might help push a smaller coffee shop to survive a little longer, where at Starbucks… who knows…

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