9:16:11 Coffee: The Affordable Luxury

I recall the first Starbucks in Portland. The year was 1989. That launch of what has become countless green-and-white dispensaries of barista-pulled, hyper-hyphenated coffee drinks meant a ritual my close associate and I enjoyed 'til then--taking a break from our Saturday errands to stop at Winchell's (or Dunkin' Donuts) for coffee and donuts, a buck for each of us, coffee included--was ending.

The lure of better coffee was compelling (and the exchange of scones for donuts worked, sort of). But the real question was why would anybody pay more--way more--for high-style coffee, when for decades they'd paid fifty cents, a buck tops, for a cup of joe?

[Starbucks coffee cup]

My answer then was "affordable luxury." With its hints of Euro-sophistication--and unlike the BMW or Cote d' Azur vacation--a daily Starbucks stop did not break the bank. The clean, competent ambience of a Starbucks gave customers "imputed value" for their premium coffee purchase: They felt good for being able to afford something that was the best.

In its mission to give Starbucks customers convenient locations, the corporation has been charged as a predator stamping out independent coffee shops (by some circular logic where--surprise--90% of same indies didn't exist pre-Starbucks). Moreover, as Tim Harford (aka The Undercover Economist) relates, Starbucks willfully pays premium rents for those convenient locations. (Think of that Starbucks coffee bar in airport terminals, just past the security checkpoint.) It is the non-Starbucks landlord, not corporate Starbucks, making hefty profits.

But, Portland being Portland, the anti-Starbucks storyline plays well here. Localism rules. A proliferation of coffee shops rode the coattails of pioneer Starbucks, all with smug claims of being more organic, more fair-trading, more local (though the coffee plantations are far, far away).

The anti-Starbucks moral choice, alas, does little for my taste buds. And I've yet to see one Portland indie coffee shop compete by selling their drink for less.

But I did find one local independent coffee shop with a medium-roast bias that suited my taste. Ristretto, at their original location, roasted beans in a windowed room, not more than twelve feet from where I'd sit and enjoy an Americano. But they've since moved their roasting off-premises and bumped their prices way up, knowing what the market will bear when localism rules.

So much of the housing stock taking shape in Portland will be increasingly shaped by outside dollars, in effect, colonizing Portland with an abundance of IKEA-esque living spaces designed expressly for singletons, which given the wages in Portland, are no bargain.

So I've quit Ristretto. Besides, I've switched to tea. Kashmiri chais are my new affordable luxuries!

Image credit: Charlie Dickinson

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

Also, a flash fiction, "Ylena Thinks Nyet," is at Cigale Literary Magazine.

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