Starbucks, Snobbery, and Church Vocabulary

I have friends who are Starbucks fans. I can suggest The Fyxx but I know we’ll end up at Starbucks, even though there’s nothing wrong with The Second Cup either. I like Starbucks… you can sit down on a comfortable couch or maybe gather round a table or sit in an armchair and have a civilized brew along with a good conversation. Depending who you’re with, of course.

Starbucks Logo But some of these people — people I like, mind you — are Starbucks snobs. They just don’t want other coffees… even the brew at home is Starbucks, don’t bother if Seattles Best Coffee is better than Starbucks. Coffee snobs. I’m a coffee snob, but not that kind… I’m the type that figures if you’re going to ingest the nectar of the gods, you should have the decency to brew it properly, drink it hot, and above all, don’t desecrate the elixir of life with cream or sugar. In Hell they drink instant coffee that’s slightly cold, and they make you use coffee whitener and six lumps of sugar. Don’t imitate Hell-coffee.

Now, there’s one thing I don’t like about Starbucks. Why the *$@#%! can’t they print the %%@^$ menu in English? At the location I visited on Friday, even one of the employees couldn’t pronounce what she was making. She was new, but still, what’s with all the vocabulary soup? You can’t even tell them what size you want without guessing what they mean. Venti, Grande, or the other one? Normal people ought to be able to order a “Large.” At least you know what you’ll be getting. After that you need to wrestle with figuring out the difference between one fancy brew and the other… besides 40 cents. Seems to me you can get the same thing with three different names, if you just figure out which price you want to pay. Maybe the harder to pronounce ones are cheaper, so the customers will cut straight to the one they know how to say and just pay the extra 90 cents for it. “Yeah, I’ll give you an extra two bucks, just don’t make me try and pronounce the menu.” The price is of course the second thing I hate about Starbucks (maybe there’s two things). I was there on Saturday morning, and three drinks later I was trying to figure out how for the price I’d just paid we walked away with liquid only…. I should have gotten three whole breakfast specials. And I would have if I’d been anywhere else. Coffee has an insane margin, and Starbucks is based on the concept that 900% isn’t enough…. well, make that 870% margin if you include a free refill or two. Once they’ve finished making your unpronounceable selection of caffeine delivery methods, they serve it up on a ledge and call out what it is so you’ll know it’s yours. This is of course a bit of a farce — what actually happens is that if nobody else grabs it, you figure it must be the thing you ordered… and you think, “So maybe that’s how you pronounce it,” and tentatively grab your beverage from the serving ledge.

So basically at Starbucks, you can go in, read the menu in a foreign tongue, guess what you’re ordering, pay too much for it, and second-guess your order when they serve it. But if you get that far, you’ll definitely enjoy the product, and appreciate the comfortable context for a relational conversation with a friend or two. The end is of course so enjoyable that you’ll come back and do it all over again the next time.

Jesus and Starbucks So here’s the thing. The established church doesn’t need to serve Starbucks coffee to become more emerging-minded. The established church already is Starbucks. I’ve finally figured this out, and in so doing, I now know how unchurched people feel when they walk into an established evangelical church hoping for some sustenance. The menu is printed in a foreign language, the people say things they can’t understand, they end up parting with more money than they were ready for, and they second-guess the whole experience. If they stick it out, the end result is worthwhile, but the whole thing feels pretty foreign until they’ve managed to sample the entire menu, figure out the lingo, and find a comfortable place to sit and converse relationally with someone. By this time they’ll be encountering the snobbish types who tell them that noplace else in town is as good.

Here’s my plea. Speak simple English, be normal, and get over the snobbery. And cheaper coffee prices. This plea, of course, goes both for Starbucks and for the church.

Now, if I’ve offended anyone with my comments about Starbucks, well, please know that I didn’t mean to do so, and please accept my apologies. If I’ve offended anyone with my comments about church, well, please know that, er, such things are bound to happen.

Update: in unrelated news, more Starbucks posts appeared today at Matrix Minister (HT:Kevin Cawley) and over at As It Is. Starbucks Jesus image credit: Vaughan Thompson.

Update: (January 2006) Turns out there’s an undocumented Starbucks coffee size, the “short”. I think this just proves my point about the church even further… if you really press beyond the secret language, there just might be unadvertised specials that you’ll enjoy better, and you’ll understand what they are. In English.


  1. Brother,

    I love your comparison of the vocab of the church and starbucks. I recall the days of being unable to talk “starbucks”. Now I can… I too am a coffee snob and talk teh lingo… but also a church snob using all the churchese I can to sound smart. Although I’m working on finding new ways to define the words our fore fathers loved so much in a 21st century context. I think we’re all guilty of bad vocab in the church as we toss terms aound like salvation, redemption, grace, etc…

    thanks for a great post!

  2. Bro,

    Only you could find a way to equate Starbucks and the IC… But the metaphor works brilliantly. Good work.

    Now — here comes the dropping of the gauntlet of challenge — can you do something similar with a beer metaphor (for Canadian content)? :)

  3. I don’t mean to be a Starbucks apologist but here I go: The average cup of Starbucks costs the
    company .48 cents to make. So if they charge $3.60 for a cup then they have a markup of about
    750%. Sounds like a lot right? But how many of those cups as a business owner do you need to
    sell to make a profit. Well one Starbucks store sells about 600 a day- which averages out to
    about $1,000,000 a year. Pretty good right? What do those greedy capitalists do with that
    money? Well for one they pay their employees better than most food retail shops. They give them
    better benefits. And they do have lots of environmental programs, including a program where
    they pay coffee growers in third world countries more if they increase the quality of life for
    their bean picker employees. So Starbucks is an easy target for sure because they are so huge,
    but for such a large company they don’t abuse their power much, I think.

    My theory on the names of the sizes is that it’s a psychological thing. The smallest size you
    can order is a TALL… In what world is a TALL supposed to be a small drink??!!! That’s stupid.
    But I think they do it so you think, “Hey I can shell out $3.00 for this drink. After all, it is
    tall…” If they called it small, which it is, the people might revolt at paying so much for such
    a small drink.

    Your comparisons to the church are pretty good. I wonder if you could rewrite this whole essay
    and write about how the church should be more like a Starbucks, not less. (corporate responsibility,
    a third place environment, everyone wants to go there, friendliness, etc)

  4. Chris,

    I do understand that in most valid business models, the profit margin is adjusted to match what’s necessary for viable operation of the business. There are times when 10% is far more objectionable than 400%.

    There are of course some things that Starbucks does well wrt community from which the church might learn. I think Starbucks does make a reasonable “third place” (see the extra posts I linked in the update) but one thing I would struggle with is whether you’d find the poor there… I don’t think most of them generally spend $3.00+ for a cup of joe every day.

    I might still take issue with them calling a small a tall… it’s the only understandable word on the menu, and it’s misleading! They do have good coffee, but often I’d gravitate toward an independent shop rather than a chain.


    “My name is JOE! And I – AM – EMERGING!”

  5. Excellent post!

    Granted, as one who drinks NO coffee (can I still comment here?), perhaps I am not qualified. Having lived in Vancouver, working on Commercia Drive (having some of the best coffee shops I’ve ever visited), Starbucks doesn’t rate in my books. Which reminds me, we need to connect for a bevvie (caffinated or otherwise).


  6. When I last visited the USA Starbucks was great…compared with the filter rubbish most places were serving. But what on earth are they doing in New Zealand? Destroying the local indie manufacturers, that’s what. With over-roasted beans! Yuck.

    Perhaps there’s another church comparison here? Regarding hegemony, marketing and ecclesiolgy?

  7. I’m English. As such, will only drink tea out of the pot
    at home with family and close friends. $3 worth of tea
    will last a month. Wouldn’t dream of spending that much
    on coffee, but am happy to spend 10x that on beer at the

    How should I express church?

  8. Perhaps instead of expressing church we should be focussed on espressing church.

  9. Bro Maynard,
    I have been currently working for St.Arbuck’s for two years. Fabulaous company, Great People. I would have to say, that is my ten years in management and other roles in the marketplace, (all in customer service/retail, Starbuck’s is the best company I have worked with so far. The “branding” and marketing practices are exceptional! I recently was challenged by Len over at to write an article on branding, church/christian/denominational etc. I am cutrently doing that. It has been a privledge to work at such an outstanding store. Gods blessing is truely on Howard Shultz, his jewish roots and beliefs flow freely into his whole life and business!
    Thanks for the post here…made me think and encouraged me! LOL

  10. Ah, yes, and now that I too work for Starbucks, I have to — tongue firmly planted in cheek — point out that Seattle’s Best Coffee is owned by Starbucks.

  11. I for one would like to see Starbucks be more like our church … we don’t charge for a refill. You can come back Sunday night and we don’t pass the plate again.

    Other than that … touche’


  1. Thoughs On God - I have just found an interesting post on Subversive Influence about how Starbucks can parallel church. "Starbucks, Snobbery, and …
  2. Starbucks, Snobbery, and Church Vocabulary « Echad Logos - [...] Brother Maynard writes about Starbucks and the church at Subversive Influence: So here’s the thing. The established church doesn’t …
  3. Echad Logos » Starbucks, Snobbery, and Church Vocabulary - [...] Brother Maynard writes about Starbucks and the church at Subversive Influence: So here’s the thing. The established church doesn’t …
  4. Creative Loafing Atlanta » Omnivore Atlanta » Blog Archive » The psychology behind the ‘Starbucks experience’ - [...] The company intentionally developed the annoying language (”grande Valencia latte”) for its products, both to add a sense of …

Share This

Share this post with your friends!