It's 9:20 on a weekday morning, and 20 people awaiting their liquid wake-up call are lined up from the cash register all the way to the door inside the Starbucks at 444 N. Michigan Ave. Statistically, at least one of them may be a thief. Or maybe not.
At issue is the ethics of the bootleg latte.The manager at that store -- who asked that her name not be used -- said about 5 percent of customers order a doppio, that is, a double shot of espresso and then put a twist on that order. Rather than the 8-ounce cup the doppio would usually command, they ask for the coffee to be put in a 16-ouncer, leaving about three fourths of that cup empty.
These customers take their cups to the condiment counter where various milks, half-and-half, flavorings, etc. are laid out for free use. They pour enough milk into the cup to nearly fill it, then take it back to the office for a zapping in the microwave.
By creating such faux grande lattes, these customers are saving $1.45 ($1.75 versus $3.20 before tax). What they don't get is milk foamed by the barista, but in a side by side taste test, tasters noted that the two were virtually the same.
Those self-made latte customers on North Michigan are far from alone in their frugality. They and makers of an iced version, the faux Americano, have become the focus of a dust-up that has exploded across the Internet with a no-holds-barred fervor that has proponents of the "it's wrong" camp branding the drink a "ghetto latte."
The unfortunate term was entered into the online "Double Tongued Dictionary: A Growing Lexicon of Fringe English" on Sept. 21 this year. "Ghetto latte n," the entry notes, "A purchased espresso to which is added a free dairy condiment such as milk, half-and-half or whitener."
The American Dairy Association might have issues with characterizing whitener as a dairy product and many people might well object to the deplorable connotations of "ghetto," but one googles "ghetto latte," 210,000 hits perk up. Most of that chatter debates the ethics of the practice: Is it right for customers to trick up purchased coffee with free additions to create their own versions of beverages Starbucks (the only coffee purveyor, seemingly, for whom this is an issue) sells for more money?
Here, from a blog called FreePress, freepressblog.org/2006/09/06/gaming-starbucks-the-ghetto-latte/, is a portion of what one barista wrote about a customer -- in the argot that flavors all stories about the coffee vendor and might as well be Urdu to the uninitiated.
"She and her boy toy came in and ordered a Venti and Grande ghetto-latte. I said, `What kind of dairy would you like?' and she said, `Oh, I'll add it myself thank you.' My problem with that is her two drinks cost $4.82 entered as iced Grande and Venti Americanos. The exact drinks on our menu, with all the shots and milk she is actually getting, are called Iced Quad Venti Breve Latte and an Iced Triple Grande Breve Latte. Venti and Grande Americanos come with four and three shots, respectively, of espresso and then water and ice. Lattes are two shots of espresso, milk and ice. Additional shots are 55 cents. Half-and-half [breve] is also an additional charge. The cost of those two drinks as lattes is $10.24 or so!"
So did the woman scam the mermaid (Starbucks) out of $5.42?
Not everyone thinks so, many citing the high price of the coffee to begin with and the very likely possibility that the cost of condiments already is figured into the menu prices. The woman and the toy, one blogger said, are just "stickin' it to the man." A response to that latter blog noted, "I thought Starbucks was sticking it to the man with their more employee-centric/fair-trade etc. ideas. This is another level of stickin' it to the man who is stickin' it."
Some visitors to the Web debate as to who is sticking whom cut the issues even finer. How much milk or half-and-half can be added before the moral boundary is crossed?
One person said 4 ounces and not a drop more. Another said ominously of the generous self-servers, "God will judge them later."
Writing as "Cutebarista," an apparent employee said, "I definitely still think it's stealing. Hell, try this anywhere else and they'd prolly call the cops/throw you out. . . . Sometimes I wish I worked for a company that cared about these things so that I could take out my day-to-day frustrations on what are essentially thieves."
A report on Starbucks Gossip, starbucksgossip.typepad.com, a site not affiliated with the company, said Starbucks' response to the flap is: "Customization is a fundamental attribute of the Starbucks Experience. We provide condiments to our customers so they can make their drinks to their liking and we appreciate their patronage. We trust our customers to make the choices that are right for them." Although the statement isn't found on Starbucks' official Web site, a company spokesman confirmed that this is the official position. Also, the manager of the Michigan Avenue store said she has been told not to interfere with bootleg latte makers.
"I think this has more to do with the customer's sense of being in this together than Starbucks losing money," said David Ozar, professor and co-director of graduate studies in health care ethics in the department of philosophy at Loyola University and former director of Loyola's Center for Ethics. "After all, the free condiments are, for the company, a marketing tool to keep customers coming in. If that marketing no longer pays for itself directly or indirectly, they'll change the policy.
"But if the same people show up at Starbucks at the same time each morning, they'll develop relationships and feelings of respect for each other that are different from those of isolated consumers. I know I'd have to think about using the last of a limited resource [the milk] if the person behind me in line was someone I knew would be ordering the same thing. I'd probably say, `Maybe we' -- notice I would say we -- `should tell them to bring out more milk.'"
Keith Bauer, assistant professor of philosophy at Marquette University, teaches courses in applied ethics, human nature and the history of ethics. He said, "Strictly speaking, if you take something from someone without their consent, it's stealing, but if, in this case, Starbucks consents, it's not. Whether or not the company charges too much is irrelevant. It's not that you cross an ethical line in how much milk you pour. The line is when Starbucks says, `no.'
"But there's a broader universe to this, the character of the people who do it. It seems that they may be of poor character -- opportunistic, taking advantage."
Joel Goldhar, professor at the Stuart School of Business at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was called to comment as someone with expertise in business ethics. He didn't see it as a question of ethics, however, but capitalism in action.
"I believe in capitalism," Goldhar said, "and prudent people who see the same product at different prices will find a way to get the cheaper one. What's the difference between the Starbucks thing and my flying to Florida for $175 while the person in the seat next to me is paying $450? If your diesel car runs on home heating oil, which is cheaper, maybe you think about getting a 500-gallon tank installed. If you order a coffee in a cafe on the Champs Elysees, what are you really buying? Not the coffee. You're buying the view, and you're buying it with the cheapest thing on the menu."
He said that too much marketing today is to convince people that the same things are different, or as one online commentator noted of the Starbucks latte, "It's strong coffee with milk in it."
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Latte vs. latte
Grande latte (espresso and steamed milk)
1.Order at Starbucks counter.
2. Pick up from barista.
Faux grande latte
1. Order a doppio (two shots of espresso) in a 16-ounce cup at Starbucks.
2. Fill remainder of cup with milk from the condiment counter.
3. Heat in microwave for 60 seconds. Stir. Heat for 30 seconds.
Taste test conclusion: Store-made latte has slightly more foam; otherwise they taste the same.
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You be the judge
Beyond the faux latte, there are many ethical decisions we make each day. What do you think; are the practices listed below right or wrong?
- Using your neighbor's Wi-Fi.
- Taking more than one newspaper from an honor box.
- Walking off with that National Geographic you were reading at the doctor's office.
- Taking a towel from your health club.
- Taking several extra forks and napkins from the cafeteria.
- Taking all the toiletries from the hotel room.
- Fistful of after-dinner mints as you leave the restaurant.
- Cutting out an ad from a magazine at the library.
- Taking pens and other supplies from the office
- Sampling from the salad bar before weighing and buying.
- Returning clothes after wearing only once.
- Making bootleg lemonade at cafeterias, by using free water, lemons and sugar.
- Stuffing your purse with Sweet'N Low packets from the restaurant.