Thursday, December 12, 2019

Super mega grande Starbucks

     I am so glad, I though, again and again, wandering the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery on Michigan Avenue Tuesday, that I didn't go into business. 
     Because, the thought continued, I have no idea what people want.
     The largest Starbucks in the world, 35,000 square feet, opened in the middle of November to great fanfare. I barely noticed the hoopla, out of the corner of my eye—big lines—but didn't bother to read it. A big Starbucks; so what? I'm not even a fan of the coffee: too strong, generally. I mean, I'll drink a cup, if nothing else is available.
     But now I had been hoofing up Michigan with an hour to kill, between lunch at The Purple Pig (roast cauliflower, mmm) and an appointment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital (pre-op interview; more surgery at the end of the month, booo), the place offered exactly what I needed: something to do.  The ropes were still set up on Erie Street, in case a few hundred people suddenly mobbed the place, as they did when it opened Nov. 15 and lines formed at 5 a.m., four hours before the doors opened. But now they were empty. I could just walk in. 
     I spent the next 20 minutes or so methodically drifting around, floating upward, floor by floor. There had to be 200 people spread over its four levels (I skipped the rooftop deck—cold outside—so can't tell whether it was empty or crowded too).
     Every seat was taken, by people eating complicated little sandwiches, plates of truffles and pastries and pizza. A spiral escalator—I can't recall ever seeing one before (uncommon, first because they cost four times as much as a straight elevator, and second because they are "stupidly twiddly" when it comes to mechanics, according to a surprisingly long history of the contraptions you can find here)—which led to a bakery on the second floor, a bar on the third, with gleaming bottles and artisanal cocktails. More coffee on the fourth. Barrel aged coffee seems to now be a thing, or at least Starbucks is trying to make it a thing—and tea, ironically, seemed to be big, with mosaics of teabags—one spelling "CHICAGO"—on the walls. 
     This is the sixth of what Starbucks calls "theatrical, experiential shrines to coffee passion”—the others are New York; Tokyo; Shanghai; Milan and the company's home, Seattle, where the first Roastery opened in 2014. That puts us in good company.
    There were glowing gas fireplaces and displays about beans—I could have spent an hour reading the walls, had I been so inclined, though in truth none of the information being presented caught my attention. The Smithsonian this is not, though there was a museum gift shop vibe to corners of the place: high end t-shirts and various cups and souvenirs for sale. 
    I easily resisted buying or ordering anything—I have an overabundance of coffee mugs, and just had coffee after lunch at the Purple Pig—but immediately saw the great appeal of the place: a perfect location, the perfect place for tourists to flop down and recharge themselves after shopping, grab a coffee and a chocolate croissant and watch the crowds below. 
     The building opened as Crate & Barrel in 1990, the year I got married, and its commercial usage over the past 30 years seems to be tracking my own life. Then I needed glassware and the various kitchen tools that Crate & Barrel offered in massed array, to feather our new nest and entertain our squads of new friends. Now a place out of the cold for a solitary coffee is far more appealing, and the glassware gathers dust or is packed away. I suppose that means that in 2049, with Starbucks a shadow of itself, the place will be turned into a columbarium, displaying gleaming niches of urns. I'll be ready.



  1. I used to edit a trade magazine for owners of independent coffeehouses. Those people had a love-hate relationship (mostly the latter) with Starbucks. On one hand, Starbucks deserved credit for popularizing the concept of specialty coffee; but it flooded that market with dark roasted coffee (the "too strong" taste that Neil dislikes), distorting consumers' tastes. This is why many of our readers sneered about "Charbucks" or "Starburnt."

    I'm just grateful that Howard Schultz is back to doing things like the Reserve Roasteries, and not cluttering up presidential politics with another billionaire's vanity campaign.

    1. I have neither the time nor the patience for pretentious bullshit (especially BS on steroids...FOUR floors? A ROOFTOP? 35,000 SQUARE FEET?)...and that is why I have only been inside a Starbucks a few times in my life. And even then, my wife goes up to the counter. I don't want them looking at me like I'm a brain-damaged doofus when I ask for "a cup of coffee." I have no tolerance for yupster posturing about something I'll willingly guzzle after merely pouring it from a pot.

      Besides which, I've mostly been a totally tea guy.

      My last visit to a Starbucks was because it was cold and I needed to kill some time until the Cleveland Museum of Art opened. Also because our bank had an ATM inside the place. Otherwise,I refuse to have anything to do with elitist establishments that require both a dozen words to order "coffee" and a fistful of dollars to pay for it.

      Here's what I think of "experiential shrines to coffee passion"--if someone handed me a Starbucks gift card, I'd give it to a homeless street person. The more noisome (stinky), the better. Then they could walk into the joint and become a stink bomb with feet.

      SPIRAL escalators? Seriously? Our equivalent of the CTA couldn't even manage to keep the STRAIGHT ones functioning. The ones at the stop at the end of my street remained broken right up until the station was closed and demolished. Its replacement has stairs--and elevators. Only the stairs are usually in working order. In Cleveland, a working escalator of any kind is often a dream and a luxury. All the escalator mechanics have probably left town for the Sun Belt.

  2. The "stupidly twiddly" article link reinforced my notion that the spiral escalator is bound to be much more trouble than it's worth, but the description of the Levytator seemed a good deal more practical and ingenious. Even the name is delightful, though I would change the "y" to "i" to get more bang from the pun.


  3. Neil's dubious evocation of such a thing as too strong coffee brought to mind a meal in a little restaurant in Buonconvento, a pretty Tuscan town on the Via Francogana, the pilgrims route from Canterbury to Rome, where, in 1313 the German Emperor Henry VII died, probably from malaria but, as local legend has it, poisoned by priests. At the end of the fine meal we were offered a choice of "coffee" or "American coffee." I ordered the latter, and when the bill appeared told the manager that he made good "American coffee." It's quite easy he said: "We just make coffee and ad water."


  4. I went on a driving vacation thru the Pacific Northwest in like 1991. There were signs everywhere yelling "We have espresso!!". There was even one on a McDonalds. We came across a little roadside stand (like a kid's lemonade stand) with the "we have espresso" signage. We thought it was funny and espresso was such a big deal out there. Little did we know......

  5. I work at Rush and Erie, mere yards away. I find that there are still lines on occasion, largely subject to weather. Have I been in there yet? Nah. It's gonna be there a while, I think. I don't go to many other food & drink places either. I live and work in the 'hood. Ennui has set in.

  6. I'm sorry to hear you have an upcoming medical adventure.

    Thanks for reporting on what goes on in there. I'd been curious, but not enough to stand in line. The spiral escalator and complicated little sandwiches sound appealing.

    The line about the columbarium gave me a laugh.


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