While corporate coffee chains are convenient, they harm coffee culture, local coffee shops and roasters and create unreasonable working environments. I have worked as a barista for the majority of my collegiate career and have loved it. However, the amount of times that I have to clarify what a macchiato actually is has turned out to be my least favorite part of the job.
A relatively surface level qualm that I have with corporate coffee is that sometimes their products lead to miseducation that other smaller businesses must correct. This is apparent in the commonly misrepresented macchiato, specifically the iced caramel macchiato. The popular iced caramel macchiato is made with caramel syrup, espresso and milk all poured over ice. However, a traditional macchiato is a short, hot drink that contains espresso, a minute amount of steamed milk and foam on top. So when people come into a coffee shop looking for an iced macchiato, what they think they’re ordering isn’t usually accurate. Typically, the closest drink to an iced caramel macchiato is an iced caramel latte—keep this in mind the next time you order a corporate coffee-style drink at your local coffee shop.
Another issue that I have with most large corporations is the potential for them to create a monopoly over a town’s business, preventing local businesses from succeeding. In 2017, CNBC reported that on average, a single Starbucks storefront has 3.6 other Starbucks stores within a mile radius. This leaves little room for other local coffee shops and suppresses local coffee culture and innovation.
Additionally, smaller businesses have to work harder to keep up with the rapid evolution of corporate coffee. While I enjoy getting creative with the drinks that we make, it can be daunting for someone to come in and request a beverage that I don’t have the ability to make. Large corporations have teams working on coffee development daily, which isn’t a reality for many smaller shops. This evolution and ability works in favor of corporate coffee and drives customers to their business.
In 2021, a Statista report showed that the coffee industry grossed $81.2 billion worth of revenue in the United States. Additionally, coffee was listed as one of the most consumed beverages worldwide, with each person drinking approximately 42.6 liters per year.
News of potential corporate backlash about unionization efforts in a Raleigh Starbucks proves that the company does not value its employees. In an interview with The News and Observer, ex-Starbucks barista Sharon Gillman stated, “At the end of the day, I’m just a barista and they’re corporate Starbucks…I’m replaceable, they can rehire for my position tomorrow and it’ll be like I never worked at the company.” Gillman was fired for supposed intentional destruction of property, but she attributes it to her involvement in the unionization process.
Starbucks alone had an operating budget of $4.87 billion in 2021, meaning they should have enough to pay their employees a living wage. However, according to Indeed, Starbucks pays its baristas $11.53 per hour even though the living wage in Raleigh, NC is $17.20 per hour.
While the average barista salary in NC remains below living wage, at $13.93 per hour, small businesses are greatly limited in their ability to recruit and retain staff due to the heavy competition they face from corporate coffee. Customers may choose to go to a corporate coffee shop over a local shop due to convenience, but at what cost? Many customers complain about stores being understaffed and some of the factors that impact this harsh reality are the grueling hours, unreasonable pay and oftentimes disrespectful customers.
All together, corporate coffee is a successful business model that keeps the rich, rich and muzzles tradition, creativity and local coffee culture. While I do not think that corporate coffee shops should be closed down all together, I hope that customers will intentionally spend their time and money at local businesses. Additionally, I hope that customers work to educate themselves on the difference between walking into a Starbucks, Dunkin’ or Caribou Coffee and walking into a small, local coffee shop and roaster.
By Elinor Shelp-Peck, Co-Editor in Chief