Sarah DeVries
starbucks

Overcoming Starbucks shame with the progressive set

Dismissed as American exploiters, the chain has the edge in service and social agenda

I’ve been carrying around a Starbucks cup for the past few weeks. It’s terribly convenient for whenever I want my coffee or tea “to go,” but I’m feeling a little self-conscious about it.

I bought it on a whim during an infrequent trip to Starbucks one morning. It was 25 pesos, and I figured I’d get good use out of it, which I have. But I keep meaning to cover up the telltale emblem with a sticker or something.

The crowd I tend to hang around with here can probably best be described as “bougie-hippie” — social and environmental progressives who have the means to be particular about where they shop and what kinds of things they buy (and where they absolutely will not as a matter of principle).

In this crowd, Starbucks is not cool, but rather another symbol of vapid American capitalism coming down to push out the very fine Mexican coffee shops and vendors that are already here.

This kind of attitude is familiar to me. Growing up, my mom loved Walmart. Like, really loved it. It was her favorite place ever to go. I was a little embarrassed by it, especially being lower-middle-class in an upper-middle-class environment. If you shopped at Walmart with your family, you didn’t talk about it.

Once I got to college, I found that many of my classmates openly disparaged it. This was for a variety of fair reasons: its tendency to push out smaller stores from a community, its use of sweatshops to make its products and keep the prices low, the dismal pay it gave its employees.

Any underlying class snobbery was masked by a concern for social and economic justice. I’m not saying they weren’t concerned at all; but there was no consideration for people who might not have another choice than shopping where products were cheapest.

Here, that dynamic is turned on its head; some of the same places that many dislike in the United States — like Walmart (which happens to be Mexicos largest employer) — are solidly middle-class stores rather than simply “the cheapest place to get stuff.”

For a specific crowd here in my artsy, intellectual, coffee-growing city, shopping and consuming coffee at Starbucks may as well amount to betrayal. Really, though, I don’t feel sorry for these other places, and here’s why:

  1. Starbucks consistently has excellent service. I often wonder what their training program looks like, as baristas are always so predictably cheery and attentive. As a very sensitive person whose feelings are easily hurt, I like knowing someone will at least pretend to be friendly to me. When customer service here is good, it’s really good. But when it’s bad … yikes.
  2. No one at Starbucks ever says “hííííííjole, es que ya se nos terminó” (“Oh man, we’re out of that”). If you’ve got a business, be consistent; make sure you actually have all of the things on the menu, every day.
  3. Starbucks actually treats their employees well. Those who work there get benefits, vacation days and help with college. While people like to point out that not all American firms pay well, their Mexican counterparts certainly don’t either.
  4. They make an effort to be transparent about where their coffee is from and support local coffee growers. They’ve also got good sustainability initiatives.

Other coffee shop chains in Mexico seem to be following suit, coming up with novel plans for reaching more of the market, too. The Italian Coffee Company (which inexplicably has a name in English and is called “Italian” even though it’s a Mexican chain) has found its place on the highways of the Bajío region.

Café Punto del Cielo has gotten creative by offering its products on airlines. Café Don Justo, after starting out with a very mediocre cup of coffee, has greatly improved in quality, and Bola de Oro has done an excellent job at creating calm, beautiful spaces for people to meet and sip its award-winning coffee.

In the meantime, there are plenty of small, independent places to grab an excellent cup or bag of ground coffee to make at home. Ninety-five percent of the time, my Starbucks cup is filled to the brim with coffee from my favorite local place in neighboring Coatepec, La Onza.

I’m still thinking of putting a sticker over that siren.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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