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A Little Something About the Big "S"

by Elaine Sosa

Starbucks would like their cafes to be your third place. Not third choice, third place. That's because the first place should be the home and the second place should be your work environment. The third place should be a communal meeting place, a place to unwind, meet, chat and connect. A place much like Starbucks.

Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, is trying to redefine the American coffeehouse, and by many accounts, he has. With over 1,100 outlets throughout the U.S., Canada and Japan, he has certainly made Starbucks commonplace.

Schultz's vision of coffee and community was formed during a trip to Italy in 1983. The espresso bars of Milan and Verona were teeming with people stopping in for good coffee and some company. Bring this to the U.S., Schultz thought, and people will definitely come. Already an employee in Starbucks' marketing department, Schultz pitched his superiors on the coffee bar concept, but they weren't receptive. Two years later, Schultz tried the concept himself, launching Il Giornale, a handful of Italian-style coffee bars serving the Starbucks brew. With the backing of investors in 1987, Il Giornale purchased Starbucks and Schultz was on his way.

Expansion in terms of stores as well as concept has been a key element of Starbucks' success in the past decade. Stores have sprouted up in San Diego, Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, Atlanta and most everywhere in between. One intersection in Vancouver, B.C. boasts two stores kitty-corner from each other. You can find Starbucks at Nordstrom, Barnes and Noble and even Chicago's Wrigley Field. Flying to Chicago? If you fly United, you'll find it there, too. Spend the night at the Sheraton and you can wake up to the smell of Starbucks.

Yes, Starbucks is everywhere. And it's more than just coffee these days. You can still get a cappuccino or a caffe latte at Starbucks, but you can also have a mini-shopping spree while you sip. Over two dozen varietals and blends are available for purchase, bearing exotic names like Costa Rica Tres Rios and Ethiopia Yergacheffe. Thanks to a partnership with Pepsi, you can now take Starbucks' popular Frappuccino drink home with you in a handy four-pack. Starbucks cookbooks share the shelves with everything from travel mugs to press pots, and even that groovy tune in the background can be yours, since it's probably one of Starbucks' own CDs. No doubt influenced by the success of Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks entered the ice cream market in 1995 in a joint venture with Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream. Pop into your local grocery store and choose from one of six different coffee ice creams. You may have to elbow your way into the freezer section, since the Starbucks brand is the number one coffee ice cream in the land.

Stop into any Starbucks and you're almost sure to get a reliably good cup of joe in a clean and friendly environment. It's this reliability and uniformity that has led some people to loathe "the McDonald's of coffee." But for those faced with the alternative of vacuum-packed coffee cans and the attendant muddy water they produce, Starbucks is a friend indeed. Most of the company's cafes are cozy in a 90s sort of way. Bold colors on the walls play against the tech-y furniture at the front of the cafe. Coffee art dots the walls and tempts you to ogle the many coffee wares. A functional counter in the back half of the cafe is reserved for ordering drinks, beans and light eats. The day's newspaper is likely to be scattered about, although many customers bring their own reading material. Windows and light are in good supply.

When you step up to the counter and order a caffe latte, the Starbucks crew will know exactly what to do. Your perfectly-pulled espresso won't sit for more than ten seconds before it makes it into your cup. That kind of attention to detail is a hallmark of this coffee chain. This is a corporate culture where the employees come first in the belief that if they're happy, you're happy. Even part-timers at Starbucks are entitled to medical benefits and participation in the stock option plan, not a bad perk when you consider that Starbucks' stock has grown ten-fold since its initial offering.

So is the proliferation of that green-and-white logo good or bad for today's coffee-crazed masses? There can be no doubt that Starbucks has helped raise the level of coffee quality everywhere. Donut-shop coffee is a thing of the past, at least among coffee connoisseurs. We've come to expect a better brew, and coffeehouses know that they've got to deliver if they are to be successful in today's market. For that and so much more, we can send a big thank you to Howard J. Schultz, a kid from Brooklyn who wasn't afraid to think big.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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