Howard County Times
Howard County

Mega coffee shop mixes politics and lattes [Commentary]

Forget Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton or even Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. An emerging political force in the recent months, including time during the federal shutdown, doesn't represent the Republican or Democratic party — at least officially.

Shoving around its public policy agenda is a Seattle native that was born on March 30, 1971: Starbucks. The company has shown recently it is not afraid to tackle social issues on top of serving lattes and pastries. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in September announced that guns were not welcome in his stores, though enforcing that edict is another thing.


"That's why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas," Schultz wrote to American customers. "From the beginning, our vision at Starbucks has been to create a 'third place' between home and work where people can come together to enjoy the peace and pleasure of coffee and community. Our values have always centered on building community rather than dividing people, and our stores exist to give every customer a safe and comfortable respite from the concerns of daily life."

Then in October, Starbucks came out with a bipartisan petition to end the federal shutdown. "Stick to the Coffee, Shultz," read a headline from the Daily Beast. But after that Starbucks took out a full page ad in The Washington Post on Oct. 18, after the federal shutdown ended, that read "in less than a week, nearly two million of us joined in petitioning Congress and the White House to come together to reopen the government and agree on a path forward."


This blending of coffee beans and congressional bents is a long way from my introduction to coffee houses across the Atlantic 10 years ago.

My family, which includes my wife and two daughters, lived in Hungary for three years and we grew to love coffee shops. When any one of us is fortunate to return there, including our now college-age daughters, heading to a coffee shop ranks a close second to seeing our Hungarian and American friends who live there. At least that is what we tell our friends.

I was never a big coffee drinker — I could tolerate some with a heavy dose of French vanilla creamer — but came to love cappuccino while living in Szeged, Hungary. Of course during that time, from 2003 to 2006, the American dollar was strong against the Hungarian forint and one could buy a cappuccino for the equivalent of about 75 cents. That is a bargain when you can cozy up with a good novel on a cold morning in Central Europe and not be disturbed by a waiter who is looking to fill your seat with another paying customer.

It is safe to say that framing public policy was not on the menu in Hungarian coffee shops. With a weakening economy, just staying in business is challenging enough for many small Hungarian stores, whether they are selling coffee or garden equipment. There are eight Starbucks stores in Hungary, according to a story in the Post.

The Laurel area is home to at least three Starbucks stores: one near the intersection of Contee Road and Route 1; another one a few miles north, on the west side of Route 1; and a third one inside Target on Fort Meade Road in Anne Arundel County.

A barista at one of the Laurel stores, who did not want to give his name, said he has been working at the store for several years and feels that customer service, including engaging conversation and developing relationships, is just as important as serving a hot drink and food. Good for him.

Not everyone is a fan of large chain stores, such as Starbucks. As someone once said, rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for IBM.

I also enjoy mom-and-pop or locally owned coffee stores in this country, if I can find them. I also like the wooden decor of Caribou Coffee, which makes me feel like I am at a ski lodge in Colorado if I use my imagination on a cold, snowy winter day. But the closest ones I have found are in Silver Spring and Gambrills/Crofton.


And while I don't welcome paying nearly $4 for a tall mocha (my favorite at Starbucks) once every two weeks or so, I will gladly tolerate Starbucks if it goes a little way in reminding me just a bit of those more aesthetic, decades-old coffee shops in Hungary. After all, $4 beats the price of round trip fare to Budapest.

Editor's note: David Driver, a former Leader sports editor, apologizes if he forgot to put his quarter in the coffee jar one morning.