It’s hip to criticize Starbucks. Starbucks is seen as the epitome of all that’s evil in the world, a huge multinational company that squeezes out the small local establishments, a place that doesn’t serve coffee so much as serves warm milk with a hint of bitter coffee taste.
That’s not how I see Starbucks. For me it’s a safe space, and comes close to the ‘third space’ that it promised to be when it spread around the world. Let me explain why.
I previously wrote (Big in Japan) that Japan is generally not designed for someone of my physical stature. One aspect of this is the difficulty finding clothes that fit, but a more daily occurrence is simply finding that I can’t comfortably fit in spaces. Tables are too low meaning my knees don’t fit or actually lift up the table. Chairs are too low and too narrow. Ceilings and door frames are just at the perfect height to hit my head—just high enough to skim under but low enough to make contact with the up and down movement of walking. Starbucks in most of its branches is American size. The furniture is comfortable for me. The chairs wide enough (even padded sometimes) for my large behind. The space between people, while close when crowded (and pre-pandemic) is usually wider than the 80cm allotted per person in other places. So physically Starbucks is better for me.
I think many people in Japan who criticize Starbucks probably don’t remember what it was like here before the boom in drip coffee shops. Now there are hundreds of places in Tokyo that serve decent-tasting coffee. When I came to Japan in 2003 these were definitely few and far between. Most coffee served in Japan was sour, or stewed. I’m not a fan of sour coffee, preferring darker roasts and bitter flavors, so Starbucks filled that need for me. I never drink their milk drinks, only having drip coffee that is actually pretty decent. It’s the espresso drinks that are calorie-laden cream beverages, but drip coffee with a drop of low-fat milk. Nothing wrong with that at all.
So, taste is actually okay. Size is appropriate for me. But there’s another reason why I like Starbucks: it’s a reasonable third space. You know what you will get when you order, so it’s predictable. The interaction with the staff is also predictable, so you don’t have to go off-script, but after a while of frequenting the same branch the staff will chat with you (they’re definitely taught to do this) and some staff will go the extra mile and get to know you properly. It’s not hip. It’s not cool. But it’s comfortable. As someone with an anxiety disorder this is perfect. As someone who finds it difficult to go to new places because of the anxiety it triggers, having a safe space where I can sit, read, use wifi, and simply wait for the anxiety to reach its peak and dissipate, is just the ticket.
I get that Starbucks isn’t cool. I get that there are definitely better coffee drinks at the newer places around Tokyo. But these are usually physically small, not great to linger for a long time (heck, comfortable chairs seem to be very uncool) and can be unpredictable. People with anxiety need predictability and tall people like me need comfort.
So please keep on, Starbucks, I like you even if others don’t.