Is Starbucks Evil Now?

Recently, in the course of making Christmas plans for our upcoming visit to Utah, my husband informed me that a member of his extended family considers it morally wrong to set foot in Starbucks, so if we go get the holiday raspberry brownies a couple of other family members enjoy, this first family member will not accompany us.

I grew up in Utah, but at this point I haven’t lived there in more than eleven years, so I suppose I’m hopelessly out of touch with local norms. And while I entertain all sorts of shocking ideas, I’m temperamentally cautious and disinclined to push behavioral boundaries. I understand avoiding tattoos and multiple piercings–I myself do–although I don’t consider them a very big deal and don’t particularly care if others sport them or not. I understand avoiding caffeinated soda, which seems like a perfectly reasonable personal health choice, even though I’m married to an addict and I never go to the grocery without picking up a six-pack or two. Although I’m a little alarmed by the draconian turn our modesty rhetoric has taken, I prefer modest dress, less out of scruple than out of an immense love of comfort and ease and a rather conservative sense of taste (such as it is).

Similarly, I understand staying out of bars and avoiding the atmosphere and behavior that often accompany excessive alcohol consumption. I’ve sometimes gone to a bar to attend an end-of-semester class gathering or to sample the best local bar food with a friend visiting from out of town. I go rarely, and I don’t linger past the point at which I’m no longer comfortable in the company. That’s where I draw the line for myself; I certainly respect others’ right to draw more stringent lines for themselves and stay out of bars altogether, particularly if alcohol poses them any kind of temptation.

But really, Starbucks? Starbucks, where I’ve done my visiting teaching, and which even the most conservative anti-birth-control mother-never-works-outside-the-home wants-twelve-children of my visiting teachees seemed to enjoy? Starbucks, where I’ve arranged to meet my Relief Society president to discuss church issues? Starbucks, where one might be exposed to all the degradation and horror of exhausted students studying for finals?

Is this normal in Utah, now? Is this normal anywhere? Please advise.

38 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Hmm…

    I wonder who sells more coffee? Your local supermarket, or Starbucks?

    If his issue is with the sale of coffee, will he also never set foot in any establishment that sells it?

  2. I’ve never heard anyone say that either. Living in Utah County my experience seems to be that Starbucks and coffee shops in general are kind of off people’s radar since there are so few of them here compared to other places I’ve lived.

  3. I can’t speak to Utah. I can say that it’s rare that I stop in a Starbucks, but that’s an aesthetic, and not a moral, choice: I’m not a big fan of the hot chocolate, so I have very little incentive to go.

    That said, I’ve known active members who work for Starbucks (both in the corporate office and as baristas), so, whatever the current normal is in Utah, it’s not normal in at least a couple places I know of.

    (But “best local bar food”? Isn’t that almost oxymoronic?)

  4. I personally have no problem with Starbucks, and I’ve never heard these type of objections from the rank and file membership. (We weren’t allowed to go to Starbucks on my mission, but that was because as missionaries, we were often judged more stringently. The mission president said that even though we knew there was only hot cocoa in the cup, someone on the street seeing us with it may not.)

    It seems to me that the people in question are making a choice to avoid patronizing a company they have ethical concerns with. It’s no different from some west-coast liberals I know who avoid patronizing Starbucks because they don’t sell enough fair-trade coffee. I would assume (and correct me if I’m wrong) that you would support/respect that reason, so what’s the problem with the conservative Utah reason?

    (However, I do think some church members tend to take the “appearance of evil” thing too far, and that may be more what you’re trying to get at in this post.)

  5. I think the solution is to not go to Utah for Christmas.

    SB still has wonderful hot chocolate, at last I checked, employed some very good members of the Church at the corporate level.

  6. Funny, I thought about this issue again just last night (as I pulled out of the Starbucks parking lot with my milk steamer on my way to Mutual). Because, afterall, the sign does say “Starbucks Coffee.”

    I think it’s so ridiculously funny that anyone would think patronizing a coffee house is immoral, unethical, or wrong. It’s a coffee house. But honestly, I had to stop and think about it — what if someone saw me? — because of that worry that someone else is bothered by it.

  7. I’ve personally never been in a Starbucks, but I generally avoid coffeehouses just because the smell of coffee gives me migraines. Gives me great incentive to stay away (and continually makes me very grateful for the WoW ban on coffee, which means I’m not always dealing with friends drinking it).

    That said, like many other choices I’d respect someone else’s choice not to patronize Starbucks, but would be upset if they then suggested that the rest of us shouldn’t patronize Starbucks, either.

    And Sam B., yes, there are some bars known for good food (of a certain type, at least). We sometimes went to a local pub for dinner after work in college, because it had good food.

  8. Perhaps Starbucks is verboten because it makes a mock of Starbuck, and therefore, the most holy Battlestar Galactica.

    Personally, I have negative feelings toward Starbucks after I got hot chocolate there once and I couldn’t figure out the cup (yes, I am a bit slow) and spilled it on myself while trying to drink it.

  9. I live in Phoenix and I know a couple of members who think it is rather shocking that a young teen in our Stake works at one of the local Starbucks. I think this is ridiculous.

    My kids love their frappacino’s and in the winter time I kind of adore their hot apple cider. Occasionally we get hot chocolate there. Their cheese danish isn’t half bad either, and I’ve popped by on a crazy morning and bought my daughter a blue berry muffin on the way to school. Once I took a hot apple cider to my humanitarian service project at the Stake Center. I got a lot of looks. I sort of didn’t care, because I knew that it was apple cider and why should I worry what they think? But I sorta did care. Because I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to make some sort of weird point by walking around with a Starbucks cup.

    I just drank it quickly.

  10. Vada,
    I was (at least partly) tongue-in-cheek. But if you read the reviews of bars that serve food in Time Out New York, no matter how much the reviewers like the drinks, they always find the food mediocre or worse.

  11. If Starbucks is off-limits, then it must have tainted the video I made for YW Camp this past summer. I spent 2 hours in a Starbucks downloading the music I had mistakenly left on my network drive at home.

    We don’t have a Starbucks where I live, so I cannot speak to whether or not I would visit if it were more accessible. But, I certainly think it’s fine to walk in and buy whatever seems appropriate.

  12. I think it’s a bad idea to worry about what other people might think you’re doing if they see you doing something perfectly innocent. I do my mom’s grocery shopping sometimes and she always gets a couple of bottles of wine. She’s 79 and I’m not going to change her habits. She knows that I think drinking alcohol is a bad idea, but her agency trumps my opinion. So of course I buy wine for her when I do her shopping. I feel a little odd doing it, and it would probably make me a bit uncomfortable for anyone I knew to see me with wine and coffee in my basket in the store. But I think it’s a mistake, and even cowardly, to change what we do because of what people might mistakenly think about us. If we need more things to worry about, we should probably worry more about our own charity, kindness, generosity, etc. rather than how others might misconstrue our actions. If Christ were worried about what people would think about him, he wouldn’t have associated with tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes.

  13. I once dated a girl that wouldn’t walk down the coffee aisle in the grocery store because she thought allowing herself to smell it was the first step on the slippery slope to becoming a coffee addict (first you tolerate it, etc.). She was a fan of this list, as well.

    For the record, I would go in a Starbucks just to scandalize the overzealous.

  14. Haven’t heard this one where I live (San Francisco Bay Area). But then, I’ll invite moms at the school to meet me for coffee, knowing full well I won’t be ordering any coffee.

    The knitting group meets at the local nonchain coffee shop. I think most my neighbors look on Starbucks as a coffee Walmarts with better employment practices.

    We stopped at a Starbucks while traveling Thanksgiving weekend–they’re at rest stops now. Husband has to check email, y’know. I can check Zelophehads Daughters on my iPhone through 3G, so I don’t need to go to Starbucks anymore.

  15. I have to admit that as a high school student, I probably would have gotten a delicious rebellious thrill from going to Starbucks (there weren’t any around, alas, so I had to settle for saying damn and hell and questioning BoM authenticity.) But these days I’m motivated by somewhat different factors–I opt for coffee shops that don’t charge for their wireless. Though someday I aspire to be like Johnna and read ZD from an iPhone.

  16. While visiting family along the Wasatch Front on a Sunday in August, I heard a presentation by a Family History Center missionary couple. He was explaining that one can access New FamilySearch anywhere an internet connection is available.

    Him: “McD’s has wi-fi now.” Her: “We don’t want you going to Starbucks.”

  17. I almost never comment but, I had this same problem. Growing up in “liberal” CO our high school had our own coffee shop in it. A lady in a cart would open up at 6:45 and stay till after lunch. They also sold those cold frapaccianoes (sp?) from Starbucks. When I went to Utah I studied in a Starbucks. One of my roommates thought I was crazy and the “appearance” was the evil thing. Eventually I married and moved to Southeast Idaho where there aren’t any Starbucks. I have no problems now.

  18. I’ve always gone to Panera for the free internet. Plus I adore their food (they have good hot chocolate, too). Of course, now that I can’t have any of their food that might be too depressing (we don’t have one where I live now, so it hasn’t been an issue).

  19. I’ve heard the Starbucks thing around here, it’s the avoid all appearance of evil. And it is evil. Have you ever had one of those iced vanilla frappacinos? I could drink them with every meal, and I’m pretty sure they have 3000 calories each.

  20. …last I checked, employed some very good members of the Church at the corporate level.

    queuno, hey, that’s me! Or at least used to be me. Starbuck’s corporate is one of the best places I have ever worked.

    Eve, I suggest that you add a little something to this family member’s eggnog that will aid in bringing about a measure of charity and Christmas cheer.

  21. There are Starbucks outlets in Eastern Idaho now.

    Personally, we stick to Java Express, because the coffee is better, and they have more than the six boring flavors Starbucks stocks. My “No-Mo” husband likes a blackberry-vanilla latte now and then.

    An individual can certainly decide for themselves that they will not patronize a coffee-selling or tea-selling organization. They may have a hard time finding a grocery store with that firm opinion (those also sell–GASP–cigarettes and alcohol.)

    Thinking it’s immoral to patronize a coffee shop, but perfectly moral to patronize discount retailers with exploitative third-world manufacturing practices… well, those are legalistic hairs I suppose we won’t get into splitting?

    But then, I’m the girl who once started a pretty big fight at a RS activity for “calling out” a Mom who bragged about telling her daughter to keep the Barbies clothes because, and I quote, “Jesus says it’s wicked to be naked.” I merely suggested that lying to a child about the words of Christ was not necessarily a good idea, seeing that the child will one day read those words for herself, and immediately think, “Huh… wonder what else Mom lied about?”

    Same thing–I don’t want my kids patronizing Starbucks, not because “Jesus says it’s wicked”, but because they’re way overpriced and it’s not a good use of resources in most cases.

  22. Never heard that. I love getting Starbuck’s gift certificates. They make a great place to hang at the end of a date.

  23. Liz C.,
    It’s neither here nor there, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen cigarettes sold at Whole Foods or Trader Joes. If you were boycotting any store that sold anything against the WoW, you’d still be stuck, because both seem to have a really good alcohol and coffee selection, and they probably both sell tea, but at least you’d be free of tobacco. 🙂

  24. Me (to DH, after reading this post): Do you think Mormons should go into Starbucks?

    DH (vehemently): No. I don’t.

    Me: Why not? Because they sell coffee?

    DH: That’s right.

    Me: Who do you think sells more coffee, Starbucks or your local grocery store?

    DH (pondering deeply): I guess it would be the grocery store.

    Me: So do you think Mormons should never go to the grocery store?

    DH: You’re right. We shouldn’t.

    Me (in my head): omgsh. What have I done to myself? I’ll be having to do all the shopping myself from now on. I have just given him a reason to avoid one of my least favorite chores.


  25. JM (#1), Sam. B (# 27) that is the question, isn’t it? I suppose if we wanted to construct a defense of the Starbucks-avoidant position–and save Bored in Vernal (#28) from a lifetime of grocery-shopping bondage!–we might argue that Starbucks, like a bar but unlike a grocery store, exists primarily to vend a WofW-forbidden substance. It’s a coffee shop, and as such, has the power to convey the delightful frisson of rebellion to which Lynnette (#19) alludes.

    Isn’t it fun to be Mormon? We can rebel over such trivia. An extra earring, a Diet Coke, a Starbucks cup–they all convey that anarchic, untameable edge.

    (I’m remembering now that the faculty advisor for the BYU student literary magazine once told me that in the fiction submissions people drank coffee completely out of proportion to their propensity to do so in real life. Coffee, evidently, plays an important role in the Mormon conception of the Gentile world.)

  26. FoxyJ, Sam. B., Brian J., I’ve never heard of it either, and I thought that in between my Utah County upbringing and my wasted years reading the Bloggernacle I’d encountered every Mormon position imaginable.

    Keri, as you say, I can understand the restriction on missionaries, since Mormons are known for not drinking coffee, and missionaries are visibly Mormon. Starbucks-frequenting missionaries would likely result in a lot of misjudgments of hypocrisy.

    It’s no different from some west-coast liberals I know who avoid patronizing Starbucks because they don’t sell enough fair-trade coffee.

    I agree. In composing the post, in fact, that’s precisely the parallel I thought of–the left movement toward buying organic locally produced fairly-treated and traded food. (I’d actually love to see an anthropologist who crosses both worlds compare the Mormon food taboos and the left food-taboos and the roles they play in boundary maintenance, for example.)

    I would assume (and correct me if I’m wrong) that you would support/respect that reason, so what’s the problem with the conservative Utah reason?

    Well, here, not so much, I confess. While I’m philosophically sympathetic to the move toward responsible production and stewardship, by birth and upbringing I’m kind of the opposite of a crunchy con–a white-trash liberal, if you will. Walmart has deep spiritual significance in my tribe. But that’s way beyond the scope of this discussion.

    Somewhat more seriously, I guess I’m skeptical about a degree of scrupulosity that forbids someone even to set foot in a coffee house, whether because it vends a WofW-forbidden substance or because its purchases are insufficiently fair-trade. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t object to someone not buying out of such scruples–but it seems to me at some point that we need to consider the costs of this degree of scrupulosity to, in this case, our family relationships.

    I tend to have greater respect for scruples that don’t indulge in gaudy, self-aware display–and some Mormons, as well as some lefties, love to indulge themselves in this way, which is tiresome and ultimately detrimental to the cause espoused. On the other hand, I think a lot of Mormons who live and work and play with non-Mormons, and a lot of organic-fair-trade vegetarians, become very adept at upholding their standards without making a verbal display of their own morality. You go to dinner with friends. Someone has a glass of wine (or, if you’re a vegetarian, a steak). You don’t have to say anything. You don’t even have to think anything. You just don’t order a glass of wine, or a steak, yourself.

  27. Matthew 6:1-4:

    1 Take heed that ye do not avoid Starbucks before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
    2 Therefore when thou avoidest thy Starbucks, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
    3 But when thou avoidest thy Starbucks, let not thy checkbook know what thy credit card doeth:
    4 That thine avoidance may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

  28. Hunter (#7), bandanamom (#10), and Tatiana (#14) all get at the issue of visibly engaging, or seeming to engage, in behavior that contradicts one’s principles. I tend to favor Tatiana’s approach, although I also see bandanamom’s point–related to Lynnette’s–that carrying a Starbucks cup around could be a kind of statement, and that seems a little silly, if that’s the only reason someone were doing it. Although I freely admit that I too enjoy scandalizing the overzealous, as Orwell (#15), puts it. Adolescence dies hard.

    And Orwell, thanks for the trip down memory lane. I think I encountered that list in YWs. As an introvert who wilts without time alone, I was particularly irritated that the desire to be alone was one of the qualities of one devoid of the spirit.

    queuno (#6), Lori (#12), anita (#13), Ben Pratt (#20, Sarah P. (#21), miles (#26), thanks for the data points. And queuno, Utah’s not all bad, you know. There’s always the hiking and skiing and stargazing. They even have Starbucks now, I hear.

    E (#16), Isn’t it a good thing ZDs keeps a priesthood leader on salary to save us from degenerating into utter nonsense?

    Johnna (#17), I too have asked people if they want to go out for coffee (knowing, as you said, that I won’t be drinking any). Really I’m just asking them, in their vernacular, if they want to get together and talk over a hot beverage.

    Matt W. (#18), that’s a crucial reason Walmart has such spiritual significance in my tribe–that is, the tribe of people raised in a large family in intermittent un- and underemployment, and then, at last, on one BYU professor’s salary.

  29. Vada (#22), I’m really sorry to hear that you can’t eat anything at Panera, as well as that coffee gives you migraines; it sounds as if your dietary restrictions are quite sweeping. That must be complicated, and I’m sure at times demoralizing.

    Although I thought the food was fine, I don’t like the Panera here because it’s jammed with loud high school students. I went there once to study, but I doubt I’ll ever go back. I couldn’t hear myself think.

    jjohnson (#23), if only I could be satisfied with the appearance of 3,000 calories, but unfortunately, in my case, appearance tends to be rapidly followed by consummation.

    Mark (#24), I knew there was a reason I liked Starbucks! It’s their excellent taste in employees, of course.

    Liz C. (#25), I thought Jesus said Barbies were wicked. (Wicked anorexic, that is.)

    Bored in Vernal (#28), perhaps you could suggest to your husband that as the priesthood leader it’s his responsibility to venture out, manly and intrepid, into the Grocery Store of Gomorrah and brave the wiles of the coffee aisle? I mean, as a woman, you wouldn’t want to subvert the patriarchal order or his masculinity or anything. At any time you, the weaker vessel, could succumb, fall to your knees and start ripping up the little coffee bags and sticking the beans up your nose and writhing on the floor in evil, caffeinated ecstasy. He wouldn’t want that on his conscience.

    I hate grocery shopping too. I hate all shopping, for that matter.

    More words of wisdom from Ziff (#31). Let us all take heed.

    (And finally, in case anyone in your life is still nattering on about the appearance of evil, Norbert of BCC wrote a brief refutation here.)

  30. Ziff, you should be ashamed of yourself for treating such a grievous sin as smelling coffee so lightly. Go bathe thyself 7 times in Earl Gray tea as a demonstration of repentance.

  31. No, no one else acts like that.
    Of course no one around here (Seattle) who is Mormon goes and meets at Starbucks either so we don’t know about the brownies or whatever that may or may not be good.

  32. PLEASE send this “first family member” a link to these comments, lol. I cannot believe it…well, actually I can! “Utah Mormons” give us such a bad name, no wonder most people think we’re freaks.

    I have never heard of someone freaking out over Starbucks, except for the PRICE. They sell plenty of other items there…hot cider, hot cocoa, cookies, breads, muffins, etc. And there are actually plenty of non-caffienated drinks, as well. I also love that they have internet access there.

    Does this person never go to Dunkin’ Donuts? Or eat out at a restaurant? Because SHHHHHHHH!!!! Don’t tell them they sell COFFEE and TEA and sometimes, even BEER…OH MY!!!! 😛

  33. I once knew of a woman in Utah, where I have lived for nearly 68 years, that threw away (o.K. gave away) the drinking vessels that came with her new china set because they were called (gasp) tea cups. So this Starbucks things doesn’t surprise me at all.


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