I have never been a great fan of Starbucks on the grounds, pun absolutely intended, that I don’t find their coffee strong enough (perhaps I should order something other than latté in future). I prefer the more astringent taste found in Caffe Nero or Costa Coffee or, even better, a traditional, independent Italian coffee house, though they are becoming, along with corner bookshops and record stores, increasingly hard to find.
That said, I think Starbucks has more to commend it than its core product. Firstly, it plays the best music, with a lot of classic jazz and blues and a smattering of folk rock. As I write this in the large branch in Bluewater (Kent), Bob Marley, is singing Three Little Birds, and we’ve just had Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Ella Fitzgerald’s Paper Moon - a fine playlist in my books.
The company also has a history of selling CDs exclusively from its outlets. I was lucky enough to stumble across the live One Man Band by James Taylor whilst on a long, lonely road in California a few years back, but sadly missed out on the live Gaslight recording of Dylan because the offer was only available in the US (a long, expensive way to travel for a $10 album, even for Bob).
Then there is the ambience, which is particularly appealing in this branch - massive picture window opening out onto a sparsely populated mall, a casual mix of comfortable armchairs and stiff backed seating, and wooden framed photographs celebrating the coffee making process and posters advertising the latest special offers.
Shelves of packets of tea and coffee, assorted cups and other merchandise are arranged in the corner by a long perspex fronted counter that displays a tantalising array of things to eat, including tuna melt and mature cheddar panini, skinny lemon and poppyseed muffin and roasted chicken with herb mayonnaise sandwich.
I’ll confess that the food in Starbucks is another selling point for me. My favourite delicacy is the toasted cheese and marmite panini, whilst my wife, who has a decent claim to being a connoisseur on the subject, asserts that the carrot cake is the best anywhere. This reminds me that, although I usually eschew the (hot) coffee, I cannot resist a coffee flavoured frappuccino, which may actually be the best frozen / cold concoction available in any coffee chain.
With the busy lunch period past, the branch is now half empty. The muted lighting generated by small, widely dispersed clusters of yellow and blue lamps, the gentle hum of conversation and the unobtrusive yet satisfying music all contribute to a civilised atmosphere.
Opposite me, two new mothers compare breastfeeding strategies, in word rather than deed, which acts as the perfect sleeping pill for their previously irritable daughters. In the far corner, a gaggle of young shop girls from Zara, Gap and Hollister meet up in their mid afternoon break to slurp strawberries and crème and caramel frappuccinos and relay tales of annoying customers and bossy supervisors, whilst simultaneously maintaining text conversations with their boyfriends.
An elderly couple on an organised coach trip, nibbling at blueberry muffins and sipping “traditional” tea, suspicious of the exoticism of coffee that isn’t instant, bemoan their blistered feet and the cost of everything. A bald, middle aged man with paunch protruding through ill fitting suit leers over his espresso macchiato at a female employee, and potential lover, young enough to be his daughter yet flattered by his worldly patter (not an entirely civilised scene then).
As my wife approaches (is that solitary slice of carrot cake still available?) I suddenly reflect – I like the ambience, the food, the fairtrade commitment, the music and some of the drinks – should I not consider rewriting that first sentence?