Driving home from Kroger tonight, I heard an interesting story on NPR. Starbucks is considering marketing their products to middle and high schoolers. What I don't get is why people think this is such a big deal. Surely caramel macchiatos are inherently aimed at kids. The US will never cease to amaze me. In our attempt to seem more sophisticated (simulated culture, but I've beat that horse to death...for now), we have turned towards corporate coffee houses to produce drinks that we can (barely) pass of as coffee that amount to nothing more than liquid candy. I like a cappuccino or a spiced chai as much as the next guy, but come on, even when we do get coffee we dump so much flavored syrup, sugar, and cream into it that all we've made is a warm, liquid Werther's Original.
My first experience with coffee (namely, cappuccino) was while I was living in Germany. It was an occasional thing for when my family went out at night. This was normally during vacations. And it was good. But it was also bitter. If an American college student got one sip of straight espresso or a traditional latte, they would spit it out. There's a reason I didn't start drinking straight coffee (and by straight, I mean sans-sweeteners) until late in my junior year in high school - coffee is an acquired taste too strong for most young people - and many older people.
The satirist who discussed the marketing change made a few good points. Saying that he's been to too many birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and that the café atmosphere would do American youth culture good, the reporter supported the idea (the downside, he mentions, being that kids who are already hyper might very well ruin the mood of the café). And I'm all for giving kids some culture. I take the success of SpongeBob as a sign of the falling of American culture and love the idea of ninth graders discussing philosophy as non-mass-produced music plays gently over the stereo. But is Starbucks really the best place for that? Starbucks, the mass-produced counter-culture? I enjoy coffee shops, I really really do, but because they offer this unique feel. One of my favorites is an old service garage in one of the prettier parts of Athens. But every Starbucks I've ever been in has looked the same, including the one in downtown Athens (and the one on the west side of Athens...yeah, we have a lot of coffee shops). I'm willing to bet that your local Starbucks has a light-stain hard wood for tables, the floor, and chairs. lamps hanging over the cash-register; a black counter. a selection of pastries on display to the immediate left/right of the register; and on the other side, five feet away, a black table where orders are delivered. It probably has trendy music for sale - really, it's just old classics repackaged, with some Nora Jones thrown in for good measure (no offense meant to Ms. Jones).
On another note, why do we wonder why kids are such discipline problems if we let them guzzle coffee, soda, and energy drinks? "Here, kid, drink this. I don't know what it is but it has three times the caffeine of a Red Bull." (On this note, they are now marketing caffeinated gum to college students). I can't really talk about coffee addiction too much - my daily habit is four cups, at least. But at least I waited until college. I was a one cup a day type of guy back in high school. Maybe a second if I went to a coffee shop later the day.
In short, I think if we want our kids to have an appreciation for the café culture, then we are going to have to reexamine our coffee houses. There's nothing wrong with a ninth grader enjoying a dark roasted coffee over jazz and a philosophical discussion with a friend, but if they (or we) think that Starbucks is high culture, we're very, very screwed.