Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Starbucks Challenge: On the Road

We set off for the second leg of our trip yesterday - this time driving westward across Pennsylvania - with our baby and our dog. The drive went as well as could be expected: we talked landscape and birds, friends and faith; the baby slept soundly for most of the six hours; and we stumbled upon an opportunity to test a corporation's claims about social and environmental responsibility. We saw a Starbucks and decided to take the Starbucks challenge. As my motherly duty was called upon as we pulled into the parking lot, my husband valiantly agreed to take the challenge in my stead. His report:

Sideling Hill, Pennsylvania

Going along the turnpike through south-central PA, we saw a combo sign for Burger King, a Hershey's ice-cream stand, Sunoco, and a Starbucks. At first I thought, well this is a strange place for a Starbucks, but then I remembered what year it was (2005), what this company is about (global domination, with plans to bring outer space to its knees likely underway) and who their main competition in Sideling Hill is (?????Maxwell House?). My wife is never surprised to see another link in the Starbucks chain, only alarmed. She soon had that determined look she gets when she's thinking about sticking it to either me or some clear-cutting corporation whose tracks of greed have stretched far beyond main street and into places named after the side of a hill. "Oh man, we should take the Starbuck's challenge!" she said.

Ten minutes later, having been debriefed about green la girl and the Starbucks challenge and having agreed that it was a great idea and something we needed to do, I was told that I would be challenging Starbucks on this occasion. Our baby in the back seat was just then performing the kind of wild head rotations that mean trouble, and Lauren insisted on staying behind to feed her. I could do it, no problem, she said -- all by myself. So I left the car with our travel thermos feeling a little nervous. As I walked toward the glass doors of the rest station, a sort of crowded food court/toilet depot I thought: Sweet Jesus. There are a lot hungry people who really need to pee going in and out of there. What if I'm in line, demanding they brew a cup of fair trade coffee, saying things like "let's have an equal exchange" and "a fair shake for farmers," and some group of truckers who forgot to go to the bathroom before getting in line start doing the bladder dance and joining with other annoyed customers into some kind of coalition of the impatient against me? Do I have what it takes to handle something like that? Then, as I approached the front door, I had to wait for a family of about fifteen to get in there in front of me. After the last one entered, I took a step to get the door handle, but the little boy had stopped and was propping it open with his back, looking at me as if to say, "Are you coming in?" I was touched, and felt a little better about a lot of things. I decided that a kid holding the door was a sign that people were inherently good before their parents made them watch fox news or the president's state of the union address, and that I was the man to challenge Starbucks after all.

It wasn't much of a Starbucks, frankly. Just a large counter and a meandering rope-line to conduct us to the register, single file. It was a good, orderly line, with about ten people settling in behind me right away. I looked for solidarity in the faces there, but it was again proved true that no one enjoys being stared at. After ten minutes of rehearsing the lines Lauren had provided me to say, I reached the register. The following is a nearly actual transcript of my exchange with two very nice, unaccomodating employees:

Starbucks 1: "Hi. Can I help you."
Me: "Yes, may I have this (travel thermos) filled with your fair trade blend?"
Starbucks 1: "Yeah."

Here, after taking the thermos and turning toward the brewed coffee, she turned around and asked me what blend I had asked for.

Me: "Do you have a fair-trade blend?"
Starbucks 1: "No...Let me ask."

Starbucks 1 was already rattled by her last customer whose order she had sabotaged, a case of misfiring synapses. In her defense: She was young, perhaps inexperienced; she alone took orders and filled them; it was busy in there; there was reason to believe that it was always busy in there; she was working at the sideling hill rest stop; people were always coming off the highway to order complicated and expensive coffee-based cocktails with long, confusing names that were somehow very similar to each other. I felt bad for her. I could tell she was like "Fair trade! I'm hung over, what are you doing to me!" Anyway, she walked over to where a co-worker was standing. The co-worker had been writing something out, taking something into account when she was interrupted. I dared not think about the line behind me, which was now -- no exaggeration -- fifteen strong.

Starbucks 2: "Yes."
Me: "Yes, I'd asked for a fair trade blend."

Interestingly, after I'd been dished off to the superior, it was as though I'd been shut off from the side of the counter that had anything to do with the pouring of coffee. Indeed, Starbucks 1 had quickly taken the next customer. And although I'd only drifted to my left about three feet toward Starbucks 2, I felt that I'd been subtly dismissed into a different area, an invisible pen for grumblers to be dealt with apart from the easy flow of operations. God I'm paranoid!

Starbucks 2 simply said that they didn't have fair trade but that they sometimes do -- that they're limited to what they have brewing by the size of the store. I asked, "So it's not here?" She answered that it was not right now. Since it was clear to me that it was either not in the store, or she was not about to say that it was and give herself more work to do, I asked if they could fill the thermos with their "normal stuff." Later, thinking about how uncombatative and pleasant I had been, I became angry with myself and wished that I had yelled something like: "Oh, no fair-trade coffee today, huh, well just give me your best dark-roasted blend. You see, I've been in the mood to support working conditions in Africa and South America that are as close to slavery as you can get without actually holding hands and summoning Jefferson Davis back from hell."

So Lauren says that they failed the challenge, but those two women did nothing wrong. They were nice, and they were working hard at their job, and only one of them seemed to know what I was talking about and I can forgive her if she didn't take it as seriously as she might have or start sweating under the heat of (absent) protests. But her bosses at headquarters should be taking this a hell of a lot more seriously, and for them, my forgiveness is not so easily given. What is stopping them from having fair-trade coffee as an option for the throngs of tired consumers travelling down the highway? Indeed, what is keeping them from choosing, for an entire month, Cafe Estima as their "featured blend?" These are questions I have as a result of taking this challenge. Maybe someone can answer them.

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