Bryant Simon: The man who knows why we're so hooked on coffee

Historians in the News

It is one of the questions that has baffled economists, cultural commentators and consumer-watchers: why are people who drive a hard bargain in all other parts of their lives willing to spend £3 on a shot of coffee and some hot, frothy milk in a very large cardboard cup?

The reason for the remarkable growth of one of the social markers of the past two decades - upmarket coffee shops such as Starbucks and Caffe Nero - could now be a little clearer thanks to an American academic who has undertaken a remarkable personal odyssey to try to get to the bottom of the conundrum. Bryant Simon spent a year visiting more than 400 of its coffee shops in several countries, observing customers for around 12 to 15 hours a week. He went to 25 branches outlets during four days in London, but admitted: 'I tried to have a drink in every one, but it was too painful on my system.'...
'Starbucks didn't introduce coffee and didn't even introduce good coffee,' said Simon, who is writing a book on the subject, Consuming Starbucks, to be published next year. 'But it did turn coffee into an identity.' The Starbucks empire is strong and getting stronger. Since the first store opened in 1971 in Seattle, it has grown worldwide to some 12,500 branches with 115,000 employees and £4bn revenue. There are plans to expand to 40,000 branches, which would see it overtake even McDonald's.

India, Russia, Brazil and Egypt are to be targeted this year. There are 530 branches in the UK and, with profits soaring, the company has said it aims to add 50 per year, about half of them in the south east of England. Anyone can now calculate their 'Starbucks density' using a locator on the company website: a person in Regent Street in London is within five miles of 166 branches.

It is proof the formula works even in a nation of tea drinkers, but Simon feels one element was lost in the move across the Atlantic: 'Starbucks is dirtier in Britain. Americans have been taught to do part of the labour, and they clean up after themselves. In the US, part of Starbucks' appeal is its cleanness.'

Its ubiquity and cross-cultural appeal has attracted the scorn of traditionalists and the curiosity of academics, who regard it as a prime case study of corporate branding in the age of globalisation. They note how Starbucks has trained millions of people to order in its jargon such as 'grande' or 'half-caff'.

Simon, who teaches history at Philadelphia's Temple University, believes customers are willing to pay over the odds for the coffee - the price hike from unroasted bean to West End cappuccino has been estimated at about 7,000 per cent - because of what the brand promises. 'Starbucks shows us our desires but doesn't completely fulfil them,' he said. 'These include our desires for status, to be socially responsible and simply to have a place to go,' he said....

Read entire article at David Smith in the Guardian

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