The dawn of Starbucks subculture

Coffee and conversation: At Starbucks. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

To be honest, everyone looks a little embarrassed. We fiddle with our smart phones to hide our blaring gaucheness.

Let’s face it. Standing in line for a cup of coffee in India of 2014 seems hideously uncool. It was easier to justify in 2006, when the country’s first McDonald’s opened to snaking queues of bright young things patiently waiting for their first McBurger experience. Today, in contemporary India, it’s puzzling. However despite being at the Pheonix Market City mall, peppered with cafes, we’re in a queue watched carefully by a waiter doubling up as a bouncer who is flexing his muscles meaningfully while flashing a ‘Java chip frappuccino’ badge.

Standing in line (I feel it’s important at this point to explain I’m here for research), I’m periodically jabbed in the ribs by the rapidly-Tweeting group of friends in front of me, who pause their conversation every 30 seconds or so to take a photograph and post on Facebook “Starbucks Forever” or update Twitter “#OMG #starbucksChennai”. After about a dozen selfies, the gaggle of giggly girls behind me politely ask if I can take a picture of them against the Starbucks sign. The two friends I’ve dragged along for research roll their eyes. “Maybe it’s a colonial hangover?” one suggests. We consider it for barely a minute. Ninety percent of the people in line have been clearly born in or after the Eighties. “A Starbucks subculture?” another suggests. After all, the brand, which originated in Seattle and now has about 17,000 stores across the globe, is something of a coffee phenomenon. They invented the now trademarked Frappuccino, a line of frozen beverages, and made flexible orders a part of the worlds coffee lexicon. (You can order a short, tall, grand or venti coffee. Add regular, non-fat or soy milk. And even choose if you want decaf or half decaf.)

When we finally reach the counter, about half an hour after joining the line, the barista – displaying this chain’s trademark American cheerfulness – sings hello. For someone unused to the system, the array of choices makes ordering coffee rather overwhelming, especially with a line of impatient customers breathing down your neck. After ordering we make our way past a group of bespectacled teenagers busy posing for pictures with V signs and coffee cups aloft, and find a table. Large and welcoming, the store has been designed to encapsulate Chennai with its wood-stamped concrete walls, leather upholstery and coffee belt map artwork, specially commissioned in the traditional Kalamkari paintings.

Our table is piled high with used plates and soiled napkins. Below my sofa, I note the remnants of a plastic spoon, a couple of split sugar sachets and inexplicably – half a slice of bread. After three requests a waiter finally turns up at our table and clears the dishes. Another follows and in one clean sweep, knocks all the bits of food and litter onto the floor. My frappuccino is a touch too sweet. My friends aren’t overly impressed with their orders – a Caramel macchiato and Mocha frappuccino. In the background I can hear a young man plaintively tell his friends, “I make better coffee at home.”

In an attempt to rectify my first Chennai Starbucks experience, I head back a few days later to meet Vibhor Mishra, coffee master for the brand in India. Telling me that the response has been overwhelming, he says this is the brand’s 50th Indian outlet. “We will be opening more in Chennai,” he adds, hinting that Alwarpet will be next in line. As we chat over cappuccinos, he explains that the Indian Starbucks uses locally sourced beans, specifically Arabica, grown in the Tata Coffee estates 900 metres above sea level in and around Chikmangalur, Karnataka. (The brand in India is a 50/50 joint venture between Starbucks Coffee Company (Nasdaq: SBUX) and Tata Global Beverages Limited.) Using a pour-over set, Mishra brews freshly ground coffee to demonstrate quality. The resulting espresso is rich, full-bodied and flavourful. (So, if like me you find the cappuccinos and lattes too milky, a double shot of espresso may solve your problem.)

Much of the food, by the way, is proudly India-influenced. I try a sandwich, filled with stretchy mozzarella cheese and a generous amount of pesto sauce. Its crowning glory is gently toasted multi-grain and seed-studded bread. There are also neat paratha wraps filled with tangy paneer. And fat, satisfyingly chewy chocolate cookies.

Of course since this is Chennai, the obvious comparison is filter coffee. But that isn’t a fair analogy – as one can argue they’re two completely different styles, and hence not really in competition with each other. It’s apples and oranges. Milk pedas and cheesecake.

The real question is – how good is Starbucks as with the likes of cappuccinos, cold coffees and café style food?

Well, so far the Twitter crowd seems ecstatic. I stumble upon comments like: “Come to me now my precioussssss! #CaramelMacchiato #win.” Then there’s the carefully phrased: “To think, this whole story of my life started with a sip of coffee!” And my personal favourite – a veritable disco of hashtags: “#starbuckschennai #starbucks #yum #yummy #greenteafrappe #whitechocomocha #sogood…”

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 3:17:42 AM |

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