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Dave Roos
10 Things You Don’t Know About Starbucks (But Should!)
by Dave Roos - March 29, 2010 - 2:20 PM



Starbucks is the coffee icon people either love or love to hate. The Seattle company opened its first shop in 1971, and all these years later, the coffee giant is still brewing up addictive drinks and venti-sized controversy across the globe. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Starbucks.

1. It Could Have Been ‘Pequods’

Nothing says marketing genius like an extremely vague literary reference. At least that was the logic of Starbucks’ original founders — two teachers and a writer — who chose to name their fledgling coffee bean business after a supporting character in Moby-Dick.

When the first Starbucks opened in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971, it didn’t sell coffee drinks, just beans. The founders wanted to name the place after Captain Ahab’s first mate Starbuck. Right… that guy. Before that, they considered naming it after Ahab’s boat, the Pequod, but changed their mind — according to a Starbucks spokesperson — when a friend tried out the tagline “Have a cup of Pequod.”

2. About That Logo…

At close inspection, the Starbucks logo makes no sense. At closer inspection, it makes even less sense, plus you risk dipping your nose in frap foam. There’s some lady with long hair wearing a crown and holding what appears to be two… giant salmon? Decapitated palm trees? Miniature sand worms from Beetlejuice?

Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with the cryptic image. Anti-Semitic groups have claimed that the crowned maiden is the biblical Queen Esther, proving that Starbucks is behind various Zionist plots. Others see parallels to Illuminati imagery. The real story is less about evil conspiracies than prudish graphic design.

Since Starbucks was named after a nautical character, the original Starbucks logo was designed to reflect the seductive imagery of the sea. An early creative partner dug through old marine archives until he found an image of a siren from a 16th century Nordic woodcut. She was bare-breasted, twin-tailed and simply screamed, “Buy coffee!”

In the ensuing years, Starbucks marketing types decided to tastefully cover up the mer-boobs with long hair, drop the suggestive spread-eagle tail and give the 500-year-old sea witch a youthful facelift. The result? Queen Esther at Sea World.

3. ‘Want a Kidney With That?’

For three years, Annamarie Ausnes was just another Sharpie-scrawled name on a paper cup. She would stop by the same Tacoma, Washington, Starbucks a few times a week for a morning lift and make small talk with barista Sandie Andersen. No one would have called them friends. And no one could have guessed what would happen next.

For 20 years, Ausnes had suffered from polycystic kidney disease, a rare condition that invariably ends in kidney failure. In the fall of 2007, the 55-year-old started feeling weak and her doctor confirmed that her kidneys were only operating at 15%. Any lower and she’d have to go on dialysis. Much like a barroom regular spilling his soul to the bartender, Ausnes shared her sad tale with the friendly barista Andersen, who went above and beyond the call of customer service. Andersen immediately got a blood test, and when she found out she was a match, told Ausnes that she wanted to donate her kidney. A few weeks later, the two women — barista and casual professional acquaintance — entered the Virginia Mason Medical Center to complete the donation. The transplant was a success, leaving the only remaining question: how much of a tip do you leave for a kidney?

4. A Starbucks on Every Corner

There are over 16,700 Starbucks locations in more than 50 countries. During a particularly heady period in the late 1990s and early aughts, Starbucks was opening a new store every workday.

In 2008 and 2009, as millions of Starbucks customers lost their latte money — and their homes, cars and first born children — to the recession, the coffee giant was forced to shrink just a tad. It closed 771 stores worldwide and has plans to close a couple hundred more. Australia was particularly hard-hit, losing 61 of its 84 Starbucks in July 2008. At least they still have giant beer and koalas.

But before you start feeling sorry for the Seattle-based mega-retailer, consider this statistic gathered by Harper’s magazine in 2002, confirming the nagging suspicion that Starbucks is stalking you: 68 of Manhattan’s 124 Starbucks are located within two blocks (!) of another Starbucks. [Image credit: Starbucks Everywhere]

5. Hand in the Tip Jar

Back in 2008, a San Diego judge ordered Starbucks to pay back $86 million in tips (plus interest) to over 100,000 of its California baristas. For years, Starbucks had a policy of spreading the tip jar love among all employees, even shift supervisors. The cash and coins (and occasional Skittles) were pooled weekly and divvied out according to how many hours the employee had clocked, adding up to an extra $1.71 an hour.

An ex-barista filed a class-action suit in 2006 citing that supervisors aren’t entitled to tips under California law. The Super Court judge agreed, and dropped the $105 million bomb on Starbucks in a curt four-paragraph ruling. Starbucks called the suit “fundamentally unfair and beyond all common sense and reason,” citing the fact that supervisors also make coffee and serve customers.

In a rare win for corporate American (ahem), the judge’s ruling was reversed a year later by the Court of Appeals, who agreed that supervisors “essentially perform the same job as baristas.” Just don’t tell that to their girlfriends.

6. Who’s ‘So Vain’ Now?

Carly Simon is famous for her transparently personal “you-done-me-wrong” ballads in which unnamed exes like Cat Stevens and James Taylor drag her heart through the dirt. But few people expected the 64-year-old crooner to lavish the same overwrought emotion on Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks.

In 2009, Simon filed a lawsuit against Starbucks, claiming the coffee chain had failed to adequately promote her album This Kind of Love, produced and distributed by Starbucks’ house label, Hear Music. But before she called her lawyer, Simon sent a series of handwritten notes to CEO Schultz, including the following quasi-Haiku quoted in the New York Times: “Howard, Fraud is the creation of Faith/ And then the betrayal. Carly.”

For its part, Starbucks said it stocked Simon’s CD at over 7,000 stores, put it on heavy rotation in the droning Starbucks soundtrack and even kept the slow-selling album on the shelves way past its expiration date just to be “nice.” In the end, it was Starbucks’ vice president of brand content Chris Bruzzo who ended up sounding like a Carly Simon song:

“We’re very disappointed that Carly has decided to file this suit because we worked very hard and put a lot of time, and energy, and effort from the music team and thousands of stores behind giving this album its best shot in finding its audience,” Bruzzo said. Put a samba beat to that and he’s got something.

7. ‘Forbidden’ Latte

When a Starbucks affiliate opened a 200-square-foot coffee stand inside the walls of China’s Forbidden City in 2000, the proud nation of 1.3 billion reacted as if someone had spilled a Venti Caramel Macchiato on its collective crotch.

A nationwide survey found that 70% of Chinese thought that a coffee shop had no business in the 600-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site. A news anchor on China’s state-run television even led an online protest to the caffeinated intruder, saying that Starbucks “undermined the Forbidden City’s solemnity and trampled over Chinese culture.”

Turns out that Starbucks only opened the mini-outpost at the invitation of Forbidden City Museum officials who were “testing the waters” for more commercial interests in the 178-acre site. The test concluded that the waters were teeming with coffee-hating Chinese sharks. In 2007, the Forbidden City Starbucks (OK, that does sound a little funny) closed its tiny bamboo doors.

8. Undercover Bux

The owner of Victrola Coffee Roasters in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle knew something was brewing when a team of known Starbucks employees started hanging out at his shop and scribbling notes into a conspicuous folder labeled “OBSERVATIONS.”

A few months later, the Starbucks outlet down the street closed up for renovations. The “slutty mermaid” sign came down and a new one went up: 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. Did someone actually buy out a Starbucks in Seattle? Was this a rare victory for little coffee? What do you think?

This was Starbucks being Starbucks without being Starbucks. The hope is that brand-adverse hipsters will ignore the obvious Starbuckiness of the new store and concentrate on the new wine and beer selection (inspired by Victrola).

9. Reading Material

Back in the ’90s, Starbucks tried to publish a paper version of Microsoft's online magazine Slate, which nobody read. In 1997, it started stocking selections from Oprah’s Book Club, which nobody bought. And in 1999, it tried to publish its very own literary magazine called Joe, a convincingly high-brow, well-written, stylish rag that only lasted three issues.

10. The Starbucks-Peet’s Connection

Remember the first time you saw The Empire Strikes Back? Luke’s right hand goes hurdling down that bottomless vent thingy, he’s holding on for his life, and Vader is going on about the power of the Dark Side. Then he drops the shocker-to-end-all-shockers: “I am your father.” NOOOOOOOOOOO!

All you Peet’s Coffee & Tea fans are about to have your own one-hand Luke moment. Back in 1970, Starbucks co-founder Jerry Baldwin worked at the original Berkeley location of Peet’s, the creator of the American specialty coffee concept. When Baldwin and his buddies Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker decided to open their own coffee shop in Seattle in 1971, they bought all their raw beans from Alfred Peet.

But here’s the kicker. Baldwin actually bought Peet’s in 1984, then he sold Starbucks in 1987. He was the chairman of Peet’s until 2001 when the store went public and he became the director. In other words, “Peet’s, I am your father!”

So if you’re one of those people who hates Starbucks and loves Peet’s Coffee & Tea or one of those people who hates Peet’s and loves the bux, it turns out you’re only hating yourself.

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