Sunday, May 30, 2010

Java Wars

If you ask just about any Rhode Islander to describe their morning routine, I'm conservatively willing to bet that at least 75% of those you query will respond at some point with the two words "Dunkin Donuts".  In New England, Dunkin' (or D&D as it's affectionately known for short) is more than just a restaurant:  it's a way of life.  Sure, you can get Dunkin' in lots of places far and wide.  But nowhere has Dunkin' weaved itself into the fiber of a culture so much as New England.  You could say the brand is an active, daily participant in the lives of so many, like a family member, to the point where a minor disruption in the bountiful flow of coffee and food product could potentially trigger a chain of catastrophe, the likes of which haven't been seen, perhaps ever.  This wouldn't be like the massive floods of 2010 that briefly put Southern New England on the national news map.  No, this would be more of a psychological attack, with much more potent ammunition than any natural disaster could impose.  This kind of hype isn't created overnight.  Dunkin' spent many years laying the groundwork on their brand before they could claim to be the King of Coffee, the General of Joe, the ambassador of the New England breakfast.  

But like a lion only rules in his den, D&D doesn't carry quite the same weight outside of the confines of it's main sphere of influence.  You could certainly argue that in most places, they have to compete aggressively with the Starbucks, McDonald's, Au Bon Pain's, and Tim Horton's of the world.  So how is it that Dunkin' has been able to carve itself into the breadth of humanity in just that corner of the world?

I have no clue.  I'm not a scientific researcher.  I'm just a dude with a blog.

Here in DC, the apparent market leader in the coffee and edible delights category would be Starbucks (surprise, surprise).  I've got two stores within a 3-minute walk of each other from my office (and not a D&D anywhere in sight).  So, forced with task of making the transition from a regular D&D customer to a regular SB customer was not easy.  It's sort of like going from being a Pagan to becoming a Catholic priest.  Consider for a moment that D&D has virtually no etiquette required - the only thing expected of you when you walk in is that you can breathe and you have a few duckets to cover your take.  If you can mumble, sign, or even just point to what you want, they'll get you going.  You get your coffee in the same place where you order it, load it up with sugar and half & half, and go on your way.

The same is not true for Starbucks.  

My first experience at SB was like walking into a familiar grocery store, the only difference was that everything in the store was written in a foreign, dead language.  Like hieroglyphics.  There were ancient scrolls on the wall with illustrations of people and coffee beans, giving me the impression I had just entered some kind of prefabricated Cafe Au Lait sanctuary.  Suddenly everything appeared in sepia.  I became lost in my own world and began envisioning myself as a Columbian bean farmer, and smiled at the satisfaction of plucking ripe beans from my orderly rows of stalks. This bean here will be used for the bold coffee, this one for the morning blend.  Then, as if on cue, a beautiful 20-something field worker named Elisa comes upon me out of nowhere, gently reaches towards my basket of beans and....

"Sir, are you going to order?  You're holding up the line!"

Oh, right.

I eventually summoned the courage to make an order.  After that, the next four minutes was a total blur.  The only thing that stands out in my mind is the variety of dirty looks I collected from around the room, people mumbling under their breath something about this guy  who has "no effing idea what he's doing."  I learned quickly that ordering at Starbucks is a skill set all of its own.  I knew I had to do something, so I decided to enroll in the 3-day Starbucks etiquette seminar where the rules and regulations of proper SB behavior are taught and mastered.  For a respectable cost of $350 (which includes a light lunch), I and 25 other brave souls flew to Seattle to be instructed on the ins and outs of  Starbucks etiquette by our very own Certified Organizer of Coffee Knowledge (or COCK).  He taught us things like "if you want your drinks iced, say this first.  You do not need to specify if you want your beverage hot."  Hmmmmm, interesting me thinks.  Or, "never, ever place your order whilst on your cell phone.  Graciously offer to let the person behind you go ahead of you so you can finish your call before you order."  Of course!  Why didn't I think of that before?

I benefited most specifically from the confidence building exercises where we role played different ordering scenarios.  For example, in one session we each had to draw a piece of paper from a hat which contained the contents of a fictional order.  The challenge was to successfully make the order, paying close attention to correct pronunciation and the unquestionable portrayal of excessive confidence; bonus points were awarded if you could indicate a hint of condescension in your delivery (not too much now!).

Today, I'm proud to say that I have graduated from being an Amateur Starbucks Specialist (or ASS), and I'm well on my way to accomplishing my goal of becoming a full-fledged member of the Starbucks Unified Coffee Knowledge Experts and Related Studies (or SUCKERS).   Never again will I be painted with the undignified brush of using words like "medium" and "regulah", or will I make the mistake of referring to my coffee ambassador by anything other than "my barista."  The word "Coolatta" has also been erased from my vocabulary database. From now on, I will fall in line with the other marching ants and always order with timeliness, precision, and confidence.  These truths are self-evident to the enlightened Starbucks patron, and they should be shared and cherished by all.

Thanks to some hard work and practice, I've come a long way since my days of frequenting the Dunkin' Donuts.  Yet, a part of me still secretly longs for the simplicity and ease of their system.  Because after all, all I really want is a damn cup of coffee.