Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Instant Gratification

I'm a big, big Starbucks fan. There. I've said it. And I'm not ashamed of it.

Of course, it's not a big secret. Anytime someone wants to meet me on a Sunday for a cup of coffee and a chat, for example, my default go-to location has often been the Big Bucks, not the least because so many indie coffee shops choose to shutter on the Lord's Day. Patronizing indie coffee shops is tres chic, tres French, but of course, even the French have embraced the Starbucks concept. It might sound like the beginning of the end of the historic Parisian cafe, but I suspect that there's plenty of space in the vast, coffee-loving Parisian landscape for Starbucks to settle into a nice niche.

Anyway, one of the main reasons why I love Starbucks is the customer service. What can I say? I'm totally American in the sense that I really do like a friendly smile and generous spirit with my cafe au lait. And believe it or not, a surprising number of indie shops don't place a high enough priority on that simple concept. Evening and expanded weekend hours are just a part of that.

This morning I popped into a suburban Starbucks after a particularly stressful morning dealing with Dallas traffic. As a lot of you are probably aware, the coffeehouse giant is rolling out their new instant coffee, Via, nationwide, and if you've had a chance to visit your neighborhood branch, you'll probably be offered a fresh, piping hot sample. I was, but I initially declined, explaining that I'm not really a straight-coffee drinker. (I often say that I like a little coffee with my steamed milk.) The cashier/barista offered to make a "Via Misto sample" (Misto being Starbucks lingo for cafe au lait), but I demurred, instead opting for a small sip of the sample he already had.

What impressed me the most about the "raw" Via is the texture. I spent half of my childhood and adolescence in the Philippines, where instant coffee probably makes up about 95% of all coffee that's drunk in the entire country, and I remember well those dark, reddish-brown granules that you poured by the tablespoon into your cup. Via, however, is extremely fine, almost like a mineral powder, and is the color of very dark chocolate. Its aroma is relatively mild, not bitter or overpowering. The flavor itself doesn't really match Starbucks coffee at its best -- sadly, the quality of the brewed coffee can still vary, depending on the branch and the barista -- but it's actually quite good in its own right. At $2.95 for a pack of three, it's cheaper than a Tall coffee but still pricier than instant coffee at the grocery store. In these recessionary times it can still be too dear for many people on strict budgets, but for someone jonesing for a Starbucks, it's worth a nice buck.

By the way, after I had taken my little sample sip, another sample cup materialized in front of me, this time looking suspiciously like a miniature cafe au lait. Apparently the barista at the other end of the counter had heard me mention that I prefer my coffee with steamed milk and prepared that Via Misto sample after all. And yup, it was even better with the hot milk. See what I mean about the customer service?


Anonymous said...

I work in an indie coffee shop and even I prefer Starbucks. I like that the beverage is standard no matter what Starbucks I go to. Every indie place makes their lattes a little differently, so you never know whether is it going to be too strong or what. At Starbucks I know exactly how much sugar or milk I need. I don't have to fiddle around adding a little more and tasting it to test.

Bobbi Janay @When did I go from a kid to a grown up? said...

I miss my barista husband, Casey was a barista for 5 years. I love Starbucks Coffee, and the people. I agree with you on indie places they aren't as good.

Julie said...

We don't have a Starbuck's in the town where I live. I have to drive into Houston to find a location so I frequent our small local indie coffee shops here.

But that doesn't stop me from being a huge fan of the Starbuck's latte. I was hoping that one of bloggers in my blogroll would write about the new instant coffee and you have come through for me!

Thanks for the review.

J said...

I do always order Misto when I go to Starbucks myself! My brother owns an indie shop in East Texas, and some good friends of ours own one here in Dallas, so I try not to tell anyone when I go :-)

a brown-eyed grrl said...

And "everybody knows your name!" :) I totally love Starbucks, and I'm a "go local" loving hippy 99 percent of the time. I just can't help it. They make the perfect soy latte.

My Inner French Girl said...

Dear Anonymous, bonjour! I do have my fave indie shops, including my all-time fave in Arlington, TX, called Coffee Haus. Sadly, they're not open on Sundays, which is such a crime! But I would agree with you -- although sometimes the taste can be a little off, especially lately, Starbucks has been pretty consistent in terms of quality.

Dear Bobbi Janay, howdy! Your "barista husband" -- I love it! I loved this particular barista at this coffee house I frequented in Grand Junction. His name was Chris, his arms were covered in tattoos, and he made the best coffee. When he suddenly moved to Denver -- leaving no notice to either us or even the shop owners -- my husband and I were bereft. Hate when that happens, but I guess that's the nature of the biz.

Dear Julie, when I lived in Grand Junction, we rarely went to Starbucks, of which there were three, all scattered near the perimeter of town. The area had enough decent indie shops (almost all with free wifi!) that we didn't feel the need to frequent them often. Now that we live in the big city, though, I find that Starbucks often trumps the local shops!

So glad that I was able to offer you what you needed! Let me know if you have a chance to try out the Via. My husband's test-driving it this morning. He's the real coffee aficionado in this family!

Dear J, and here I thought I was the only one who ordered the misto! So glad to know I'm not alone. Remember when it wasn't on the regular menu, and you had to ask for it special? Hated having to explain it to the baristas. ;-)

I love that your brother owns an indie shop. I'll have to ask you about it the next time I see you. I'm always looking for good ones whenever I'm on the road.

Dear brown-eyed grrl, bonjour, cherie! Considering where you live, I'm not surprised you're 99% hippy. Me too, and I'm a Dallasite! ;-) I haven't tried the soy latte, but the regular latte's been awfully good lately!

You know, I walked into my local Starbucks the other day, and the guy actually did remember my name and my drink. Loved that.

Thanks so much for the comments!


Betty C. said...

My daughter sure became a big fan in the USA! She can't stand the little espressos served here in France.

I've been a little disappointed in the Starbucks' in Paris; they seem to be nicer in the USA. Funny but the opposite is true with "McDo" -- French ones are quite chic compared to the American ones.

Angie Muresan said...

So sorry to disappoint you, and I promise I am not a coffee snob. But, I cannot stand Starbucks! To me their coffee tastes watered down, and really more like hot cocoa. Thankfully, I live in the Pacific Northwest where coffee shops abound, and I never have to do without a perfect cappuccino or espresso, twenty-four hours a day and even on Sundays.

My Inner French Girl said...

Bonjour, Angie! Yes, you're very fortunate to be in an area with lots of great coffee shops! My husband was up there a few months ago and was sooooo envious.

The Starbucks over here isn't bad, actually, and sometimes is even better than indie coffee shops. Fortunately, however, the Starbucks phenomenon has inspired other java-loving entrepreneurs to try their hand at running a coffee shop, so we're getting more choices.

Merci mille for your comment! And FYI...My Inner French Girl has moved to its new and improved site, at www.myinnerfrenchgirl.com. I hope you'll pay a visit!