I just learned today that drinking a cup of Starbucks is associated with higher status. Then, I must be at the bottom of the rung because I will choose to drink a cup of Kumbakonam degree coffee at Murugan Idli Shop in Chennai’s T. Nagar every morning, noon and night and stop at Starbucks only to use its restroom.
Starbucks is planning a Grande entry into India and the company is planning 2,000 stores by the end of 2014. My reaction to this news is colder than day old coffee. But what disturbs me the most is to see references, in several articles that I read, to how drinking a cup of this beverage is a sign that one has arrived. Here is a quote from a story in Seattle Times.
“Starbucks is what’s called an “aspirational brand,” Zackfia said. “It’s probably less what you’re selling than what the brand represents, which is a certain level of status. It’s the first luxury item most people can afford.”
The first thing that strikes me is that Starbucks wants to set up shop in the land that whips up some of the best “filter” coffee in the world. North Indians are mostly chai drinkers but the South of India is famous for its potent decoction coffee. The town of Kumbakonam in Tanjore district makes the most famous cup, served always in a stainless steel cup and base, called tumbler and davara, respectively. South Indians don’t do china or melamine or paper. Coffee has to sipped from a tumbler. It must sear your throat. The steam from the tumbler must shoot through your nostrils into the hippocampus where it will fire neurons like no double-shot, extra-hot cappuccino at Starbucks will. Still, it isn’t as if the traditional Kumbakonam coffee fans have prevented the simmer of cafe style shops around them. India’s well-known gourmet coffee chain, Cafe Coffee Day, serves dreadful variations of this godly beverage. From my experience, time and again, several spoonfuls of sugar have not made this medicine go down.
I asked Alon Halevy, author of The Infinite Emotions of Coffee, what he thought about outfits like Starbucks steamrolling into countries that not only produce their own coffee and tea but already have elaborate and established rituals of coffee and tea drinking.
Halevy can see the point about prestige. “In many countries Starbucks ends up being a status symbol. People go there not because of the coffee, but because they want to be seen there and it’s a cool place to meet. They also like walking around town holding a Starbucks cup because it means they have been there and can afford the higher prices. I have no idea whether this will fly in india,” he says.