Roger Scheumann is on the phone from Quartermaine Coffee Roasters in Rockville. He sounds alarmed.
"People feel invaded," he says. "They can't get away from it. I think people ultimately want choices in their life, about lots of things, and it's sort of like not being able to turn off the radio. You can't turn off the conduit, the pipeline."
It's not some drug threat from Central America that has $l Scheumann agitated. It's not a new virus or some sinister "X Files"-style life form. It's coffee -- specifically Starbucks coffee, that ubiquitous, take-no-prisoners brand, that bottomless cup into which our caffeine-loving country is falling.
Yes, there are some outposts that Starbucks, named for the coffee-loving shipmate in "Moby Dick," is just beginning to infiltrate. Baltimore, for example. But those ranks are thinning. The nation's leading specialty coffee company, 25 this year, is seeping like a dark stain across the map, across the senses, seemingly anywhere it can reach. It's a phenomenon many people feel is grounds for concern.
From a single store in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971, Starbucks has become a $700 million-a-year corporate octopus, with more than 1,000 stores in the U.S., Canada and Tokyo. Its sea-siren logo is stamped on everything from gourmet ice cream jazz CDs, boutique beer to cyberspace.
"Clearly, there's overkill," says Scheumann, who knows a little about the company. He began working at Starbucks at age 14, and left it to help found Quartermaine's with Starbucks' three original owners in 1991. He's now sole owner.
"When I started with them (in 1983), there were six stores, and Starbucks was about great coffee. Today, it's about marketing and real estate, about building a brand," he says. "Clearly, it's no longer about coffee."
These days, such feelings are percolating more frequently across the caffeine scene. Even in its native Northwest, the perception that so much Starbucks is too much is fueling a backlash. Some former patrons are abandoning it as uncool. Others are actively fighting its further expansion.
Witness the bumper sticker starting to show up on cars all over the West, produced by a small-time Oregon coffee retailer: "Friends Don't Let Friends Go to Starbucks."
Perhaps you are wondering: What's not to like about Starbucks? It serves up a good product, it's by all accounts a model employer and corporate citizen, even competitors have to credit it for spreading the gospel of fresh-ground gourmet coffee.
The heart of the problem, it appears, is simply its sheer size, its unceasing march toward world domination of coffee -- and more.
Take Dan Volz, a Baltimore school teacher. Starbucks, he readily admits, puts out "a consistently good cup of coffee." Nevertheless, you'll most often find him enjoying his daily cup at the independent Daily Grind coffeehouse in Fells Point.
"When I go out for a cup of coffee, I like to sit and relax, read the newspaper, have a cigarette," he says. "And when I enter a Starbucks -- maybe it's the decor, I don't know what else it could be -- I don't feel comfortable."
Says the Daily Grind's owner, David Key, "When you try to appeal to a mass audience, you can lose a little in the translation. But they are educating people about coffee, many of whom then become my customers."
Starbucks spokeswoman Susan Goodell takes such criticism in stride. "Several coffee retailers can exist in a community," she says. "Starbucks has made the analogy of having several different neighborhood pubs, and each resident will kind of find that one spot that provides the atmosphere they find most comfortable."
But in Seattle, where its listings take up two full columns in the Yellow Pages, "It's almost embarrassing for someone who used to go to Starbucks religiously to be seen there anymore," says Chauncey Burke, assistant professor of marketing at Seattle University. "Those people don't like to be associated with the broader, mass-merchandised products."
Volz agrees. "Some people feel like Starbucks is turning into a McDonald's," he says. "My impression is it's a very slick operation."
# You could say that.
2,000 by 2000
In case you haven't noticed, Starbucks is in your face. It's in your ice cream, for example (five flavors manufactured by Dreyer's). It's even, lord help us, in your beer, if your brew of choice is Redhook Ale's Double Black Stout.
Each week about 3 million people buy coffee at a Starbucks. A new Starbucks opens somewhere about once a day, and the chain's aim is to operate 2,000 stores by the year 2000.
In Maryland, in the past 18 months, Starbucks stores have opened in Towson, Timonium, Owings Mills, Pikesville, Bel Air, Annapolis and Mount Washington. Over the next 12 to 18 months, stores are scheduled to open near Johns Hopkins, near the city's waterfront, at White Marsh Mall, in Glen Burnie, Columbia and Laurel.
But you don't have to go to a Starbucks to get Starbucks coffee. You can find a cup in any Westin Hotel, in Barnes & Noble bookstores, Star Markets, Nordstrom department stores, even at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Cadillac is sending out 22,000 samples of Starbucks coffee to people they hope will buy their new Catera model. Pepsi has signed on to market bottled Frappucino and Mazagran, Starbucks coffee drinks. Sunset Books has produced Starbucks cookbooks.
The assault isn't just by land. It's by sea, on Holland American cruise lines. It's in the air, on United Airlines, where, while sipping Starbucks, travelers can listen to the Starbucks in-flight entertainment channel, playing the same tunes heard in your local Starbucks store (CDs available through Rhino, Capital Records and BMG). And you'll find it at numerous U.S. airports as soon as you touch down.
And, of course, it's in cyberspace: Just punch in keywords "Starbucks Cafe," "great coffee" or "espresso" on America Online.
It's no accident that the company logo features a siren: a mermaid with two tails. "What does she have to do with Starbucks coffee? Everything. She lures, she seduces, cajoles," says the company's literature. "She is an aphrodisiac. She is desire. Our siren is the coffee. Starbucks coffee."
But what starts to smell like a fresh-roasted monopoly is also a much-admired, humane business.
Starbucks treats its customers kindly. Behind the counter, your "barista" will patiently help you order a "half-decaf double-tall two-percent vanilla latte," all the while making sure that your espresso always takes just 18 to 23 seconds to draw.
It treats its employees well, too, offering full benefits and "Bean Stock" stock options to everyone who works at least half-time, says company spokeswoman Goodell.
Starbucks even works to help some of the countries that supply its coffee, bringing clean water to communities in Guatemala and Indonesia through the relief agency CARE, which it supports with donations of more than $100,000 a year. Baltimore-area stores, meantime, sponsor the Baltimore Reads literacy program.
The company's goal is to create a "vital third place" -- other than work and home -- for Americans. That ideal grew out of a visit to Italy by CEO Howard Schultz in 1983, when Starbucks was a local chain of a half-dozen stores. Schultz, who led a buyout of the original owners in 1986, noticed the espresso bar was the place where Italians gathered and a sense of community grew. On that model, Starbucks grew -- to 250 stores in the next five years.
"There have been neighborhoods in cities we've absolutely turned around because we entered them, and after we did, other [businesses] did, too," says Dean Torrenga, mid-Atlantic regional director for Starbucks, mentioning Chinatown in Washington, D.C., among others.
But the Daily Grind's Key points out the flip side to Starbucks' arrival in some places. When Starbucks moved into Washington's DuPont Circle, he said, it wasn't long before the tiny neighborhood coffee store across the street, in business for more than 20 years, was gone.
That sort of scenario has brought out foes in several cities, from San Francisco to Katonah, N.Y., where some feel Starbucks arrival means the beginning of the end for local, independent retailers.
Carole Baptist-Souza is one of those small retailers. She owns the Gourmet Coffee Cellar in Ashland, Ore., and is distributing the "Friends Don't Let Friends Go to Starbucks" bumper stickers.
Unlike some other Starbucks critics, Baptist-Souza has no quarrel with the quality of the mega-brew. But a Starbucks is opening in Ashland soon, and Baptist-Souza worries that it will hurt the ambience of her small town.
"It's kind of like shooting in a duck pond," she says of the company's decision to enter a market smaller coffee sellers built. "The bottom line is, profits from the company leave the community and go back to the stockholders."
But Starbucks' Goodell says such criticism is half-baked. She points out that the stores hire local workers, give all beans more than a week out of the bag to local nonprofits, and have a budget for local charitable donations.
She adds that in some cities, small coffee companies are entering neighborhoods Starbucks has developed, to take advantage of new gourmet coffee consumers.
Rose Marie Greenburg, owner of Ashland's Cuppa Joe coffee store, is more resigned to what she sees as the inevitable.
"It's the General Motors of coffee," Greenburg says. "Whaddaya want?"
The griping about Starbucks as monolithic corporate entity doesn't seem to bother the company much. Goodell, for instance, sees positives in the comparisons to McDonald's.
"Something McDonald's does very well is provide consistent service and a consistent product," she says. "Starbucks tries to provide a consistent quality product in all locations, so in Seattle or Dallas or Baltimore, the quality of coffee and quality of service you are given should be the same."
Though he feels strongly that his former employer has lost its commitment to producing superb coffee, Quartermaine's Scheumann has little doubt Starbucks will continue its remarkable success and expansion.
"I think we are witnessing something really rare here -- the birth of an international brand," he says. "We are seeing the next Nike, the next Coca-Cola being built."
Still, uprisings like the one in Ashland show that Starbucks is facing the same dilemma as its hometown's grunge bands: starting off small and full of cachet, only to be ruined by popularity.
Patrick Fleenor, professor of management in Seattle University's Albers School of Business and Economics, warns that Starbucks faces new troubles as new, less sophisticated customers replace die-hard coffee connoisseurs.
"People who are the 'late adopters,' to use the marketing phrase, are often the first to jump ship when the fad is nearly over," says Fleenor.
4 But it's a good bet that will likely be a while.
When Starbucks opened at the University of Maryland in College Park in February, it was warmly received, says Carrie Melago, news editor at the Diamondback, the student paper.
"A lot of the coffee on campus is water that has caffeine in it," she says. "This is good coffee. And around finals time, the store offers quadruple espresso."
The fact that the campus store is just one in a mega-chain doesn't bother her, either. "I don't think it's overkill," she says. "There are 10 Taco Bells on campus. Another Taco Bell would seem overkill."
Pub Date: 12/28/96