As Australians abroad, one of the key components of our daily lives that has to be fulfilled is the need for decent coffee daily. I always thought this was just an issue for Australians whose taste-buds didn’t appreciate foreign coffees. This has been the case in the USA where in the past, I have tolerated brewed coffee as just something that all tourists have to stoically accept and get on with enjoying the other cultural qualities of our American cousins. However, I always assumed that I could fall back on Starbucks coffee as a reasonable compromise that would keep me going until I returned to the flat white plains of Australia. It wasn’t outstanding coffee, but it was okay and better than the usual coffee served up in standard American eating places. What disturbed my coffee universe recently was the news of a successful startup company developed by an Australian who opened cafes in New York and Washington called Bluestone Lane, selling Australian Flat Whites and adding value to the deal by accompanying it with lamingtons and other Australian side treats like Anzac biscuits. As a result, getting good coffee on our recent visit to the USA was not the usual problem.
Then we arrived in Chicago where falling back to Starbucks coffee became a concern.
Being a tourist in this new city, we always took the same route back to our hotel from daily outings and each time during our three days in the Windy City, we were forced to pass throngs of locals lining up in a queue that lead to the door of a new Starbucks establishment. The place itself was obviously packed and there were large number of customers lined up outside keen to take their place. The first time we noticed this phenomenon, I decided that Chicagoans were just keen on coffee and wondered why they didn’t go another block to visit the Starbucks that was conveniently located next to our hotel! There were not that many customers in this Starbucks cafe if the need for coffee was urgent. The next time we were returning to our hotel , the same sight of queueing Starbucks customers greeted us again and so I decided there was something going on that was peculiarly Chicagoan and as cultural interlopers, we would not be able to understand the attraction of this new Starbucks café. There was no way I could personally get into this café myself to see what was going on as I would have had to jump the queue with the inevitable coffee-riot.
Luckily central Chicago had these new age advertising screens on street corners and it was here I discovered the answer to why grown people would stand in line for hours to drink Starbucks coffee. Starbucks had built a new establishment in Chicago that wasn’t just selling vaguely reasonable coffee, it wasn’t a speed-serve café, it was a ROASTERY (whatever that is!) which provided the “Experience, the spectacle, the craft” and if that wasn’t enough, they served you coffee!
The next time I passed this Roastery I took a bit more notice of what was going on. I looked through the window of this establishment and noticed it was at least a three story affair with a huge copper device in the centre that looked like a spaceship but I decided it must have been the site of the ‘spectacle’ where they converted ageing coffee beans into drinkable coffee. Over the door I noted the sign which proclaimed “Starbuck Reserve Roastery”. I can only presume that they were using ‘reserve’ in the wine sense that this coffee was “Reserve Coffee”, expensive coffee that had been held back in reserve until all the rubbish coffee had been sold.
The other astonishing spectacle that I noticed was that there were two queues for people lining up to enter this palace of coffee dreams. There was one that started at the door of the Roastery, went around the corner and came to a grinding halt at the edge of an up-market banking establishment. The ‘execs’ inside had presumably threatened the Roastery with legal action if they allowed people to queue outside their doors so a second queue had to start again around the corner (see image above) for those who came late. There were marshals at the end of the first queue whose main job was to explain to late comers that they couldn’t join the main queue but had to walk around the corner and join the ‘reserve’ queue. I only hope that these customers main response was, “You’re kidding me, aren’t you?” Those who accepted their fate of going to the reserve queue looked like folk whose life held no meaning and the only hope they had was by waiting long enough, they would eventually be able to enter the coffee Nirvana.
I decided that the only solution for understanding what was happening on this Chicago corner was for me to do some internet research! Finally I was able to gain some insight into the social phenomena occurring one block away from our hotel. The subject of the interview was recorded as being the ‘former’ CEO Howard Schultz; why he was ‘former CEO’ was not explained in the article, perhaps he was fired because of this interview? He claimed that his vision for this new Roastery was… “he wanted the Chicago roastery to be ‘the Willy Wonka of coffee.’ Another executive explained… “We embraced the building’s natural light, married it with shades of classic Starbucks greens and intentionally wove in design features to encourage customer exploration and highlight the love and respect we have for coffee.” This explained what was going on. Starbucks execs spoke in tongues.
Further enlightenment came from Ryan Smith of “chicago. curbed.com” who wrote in his review … For those wanting a simple cup of hot coffee, consider somewhere other than Chicago’s new Starbucks Reserve Roastery. The new 35,000-square-foot Starbucks at 646 N. Michigan Avenue—the world’s largest—is like a theme park engineered for unique (and Instagram-friendly) experiences. For Friday’s 9 a.m. grand opening, Starbucks superfans traveled from as far as San Diego to stand in lines that wrapped around the block in hopes of getting a peek into the five-story superstore. Inside, the visitors could taste $14 smoked “Cold Fashioned” cocktails, liquid nitrogen gelato, and curated coffee-truffle pairings.
Our luck must have been in as our first day of touring Chicago was the day of the Grand Opening of the Starbucks Roastery and the day ‘Starbucks Superfans’ started to arrive in town to stand in queues that stretched around the block.
One character who skipped the queue was the homeless guy who kneeled on the corner of Michigan and Erie, right on the edge of the queue and in the centre of a crowd of restless lost souls who were wondering what the hell was going on here. His sign had the usual request for small change and a brief summary of his background. His presence seemed to undercut the atmosphere of the grand opening and no doubt made it more difficult for conscience-stricken citizens to shell out $14 for “curated coffee-truffle pairings”.
We used our hotel’s Starbucks for our urgent morning coffees during our time in Chicago.