2011/365:059: There’s an Autobot in My Latte

incredibly serendipitous photo by michael sauers from Boise, ID

This is not meant as a slam on Starbucks, but I do write from very limited coffee experience. I am, unfortunately, one of those people, ever-addicted to the stronger brew of coffee, made by my local Starbucks (and I do mean all seven of them located within two miles of my home).

And, if for some reason you don’t believe me, I’m wondering how many of you out there can say you got up at 4:30 a.m. on the morning the closest Starbucks was set to open their doors for the first time. Maybe I didn’t pitch a tent, but I beat the others, and yes–I was their first customer.

Ever.

I’ve got the cup (somewhere in my boxes of collectibles) to prove it. The barista who made my drink wrote a big 4 on the top of the cup for “quad,” or the extra shot, and an even bigger “A” for Americano.

She wrote in Sharpie, and she was left-handed. I have no idea what she looked like or what she was wearing besides a green apron. On that morning, everything was about that Quad Grande Americano, add Whip and two Splenda, thank you very much.

I even wrote about the experience and sent it to the Towson Times. It was passionate, even seductive how I covered the pre-dawn affair.

It was also rejected.

What I remember most, though, about that morning was the way she pulled those third and fourth shots. She tamped down the espresso grind into the portafilter just so, carefully wiping any excess grinds that might find their way into the cup. Then, she placed the filter into the machine and pulled a 19-second shot that topped off the 185-degree water that followed the first two shots.

She double-swirled the drink with the Splenda, added the fresh whipped cream to seal it all in, and then delicately placed the lid on the masterpiece. The sweet cream began to ooze through the lid, and I took my first sip of what would turn out to be too, too many personally made Quad Grande Americanos in the weeks, months, and years to follow. We were partial to a few baristas in particular; Ricky always made Amy’s drinks with masterful precision, and Alisha just had that special touch when it came to pulling shots. I wish I could explain it, but it would waste both my time and yours in the failed attempt.

That was then; this is now.

The first step Starbucks took to dehumanizing the process was to replace all of the manual espresso machines with auto espresso makers. Yep. To be a Starbucks barista, all you had to do was push a button to get the perfectly pulled shot, every single time. Gone was the 17-second shot, the 21-second shot, and even the 15-second, finely ground shot. Sure, there were some variations, like the length of a shot of syrup or the temperature of the milk, but really–once you neutralize the core of the creation, all the cosmetic add-ons don’t deepen the personal experience, you know?

At least we could still get the personalized scribble in black Sharpie on the cup. On some level, I still felt like there was a personal, human touch in making my coffee.

Right?

Not anymore.

This past weekend, when we drove through our Starbucks on corner no. 5, I was dismayed to find something stuck to the side of my drink. At first it looked like some kind of bandage.

Such personal care, I thought. My cup has a boo-boo, and they fixed it.

Hardly.

It was a digital printout of my order. No more Sharpie pen, no more little 4, no more big A.

So you tell me, Starbucks. When you rolled into town and had to justify your $4 drink (which is now $5), all we heard was personal service, personal touch, personal everything.

All I see now is a $5 cup of generic coffee brewed by an autobot, pretending to be a human.

I had this idea a few years ago to open a used book store and coffee house with a touch of zen. I was going to call it BookZenBeans (get it? Books and Beans?), with the Z having a little attitude swish to it. I promise you this, Faithful Readers: If I ever realize this little dream, I will NEVER auto-pull your shots, and I will ALWAYS write something cool on your cup.

Promise.

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2 thoughts on “2011/365:059: There’s an Autobot in My Latte

  1. So funny Rus— come up this way and you will still get the personal shots, and the handwriting on the cup! Somethings around here might have gone high tech ( wha hoo we are getting a Wegmans in another month or so) but my starbucks still has the personal touch … grande cafe mocha, only one shot syrup not 3, double expresso shot, skim extra hot, no whip, 1 sweet n low…. with my sharpie marker smiley for 3.60!!! And they opened a drive thru but I still go in… something about the smell when you first open the door. Several other coffee shops in town but none that compare to my starbucks! Oh and love the bookszenbeans idea! Im in 🙂

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  2. The Starbucks out near Westminster (near the stable) still hand marks your cups! I almost saved them to bring home to you, since I knew it would make you happy. I’m sure that will change, though. It’s only a matter of time before the podunk Starbucks ends up on the technology train with the computer generated labels.

    Also, I miss Ricky.

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