Seinfeld ‘n’ Starbucks: One Down, One to Go

You didn’t think I was going to let the occasion pass without a little celebration, did you, just a bit of gloating. I’m talking about Jerry Seinfeld’s departure. Jeez, you read the papers, you get the impression this was an occasion for unanimous nationwide mourning-that the entire populace was weeping and gnashing its teeth. Yet I happen to know, as I’ve demonstrated with my “Can’t Stand Seinfeld ” coupon survey a year or so ago, that there is a small but outspoken, impassioned and articulate minority-an elite, I’d say-of smart, funny people who have never bought into the tedious, overblown Jerry Jerry Jerry hype. Those of us who are unafraid to say, “Thank God he’s gone! We couldn’t be happier.”

Oh, sure, we know the reruns will go on forever, for as long as the earth is habitable probably, for as long as the half-life of plutonium, which decays so slowly it remains a toxic threat for thousands of years. But at least the process has started! There’ll be no more new Jerry, no more Jerry in prime time, no more inane Must-See TV nights to avoid like the plague. The terminally smug and insipid Thursday-night affronts, the ones that made us feel so alienated from the terminally irritating Jerry fans with their pride in the tiny horizons of their sensibility, the timidly sneering yuppie perspective Jerry never challenges-off the prime-time air!

Now I’d like to make what might seem to some like a sudden transition-from Seinfeld to Starbucks. Although I’m not so sure it’s that much of a shift. In fact, I seem to recall in a previous column I characterized Seinfeld as “the Starbucks of comedy,” a bland, deeply conventional and unchallenging phenomenon. I also called it the insulated “safe sex of comedy” and called Jerry “the Dan Quayle of comedy”-not a sacred cow, but a super-bland, super-pallid sacred veal . In fact, if you want to define the imaginative failure of 90’s sensibility, you need go no further than Seinfeld ‘n’ Starbucks, the pathetically weak brew America has settled for as stimulating entertainment and entertaining stimulant.

Faithful readers of this column know I have my persistent crusades, subjects I return to doggedly, some might say pit-bull-doggedly. Certain of them are generous, positive enthusiasms, for Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire , for William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity , for Mystery Science Theater 3000 , for the great Rickie Lee Jones, for the late, great Books & Company.

And some are, well, not so positive: the Whitney Museum of American Art (strangler of Books & Company), the alleged “Shakespeare” funeral elegy, Seinfeld , Starbucks.

Not Starbucks’ product so much, not the coffee which I like and drink mass quantities of. Not Starbucks’ regular employees, who are usually friendly and good-natured, but Starbucks’ managers and the New Age bureaucratic culture that turns many of them into unpleasant little martinets, intoxicated by their petty positions of authority, loving nothing more than to lord it over the customers they are supposed to serve.

It’s hilarious because the official dictum of Starbucks, their New Age version of “the customer is always right,” is the ostentatiously servile slogan “Just say Yes!” But in my experience, Starbucks’ managers derive immense pleasure from saying No! From making the customer feel in the wrong, making the customer rue his or her ignorance of the many extremely important Starbucks rules which they, the self-important store managers, know so well and love to enforce in a preeningly self-righteous way.

Before I get to the splendid victory I’ve wrested from Starbucks’ management in Seattle on behalf of coffee drinkers here in New York and throughout the nation, let me cite a couple of recent instances of gratuitous nastiness from Starbucks’ managers. Both arose from what may be a brewing Starbucks scandal, so to speak: the questionable ability of their vaunted Flavor Lock bags to keep coffee fresh. It’s another instance of how the chain’s monstrous growth may have crippled its original mission.

You might have noticed that many of the Starbucks outlets that used to sell whole-bean coffee in paper sacks with expiration dates at the bottom have shifted to the shiny Flavor Lock packaging. The goal is longer shelf life for the mass quantities they’re now shipping and purveying. Whole beans in the paper sack were only supposed to stay on the shelf a week, and the customer could read the expiration date on the bottom of the bag. The Flavor Lock sealed packages are supposed to keep whole beans fresh half a year, 26 times longer . But there’s no expiration date on the bag, just an indecipherable code.

And in practice, the new packaging doesn’t seem to be working out that well. On three occasions recently, at three different Starbucks outlets, I’ve bought flavor-sealed pounds of coffee that, when brewed, turned out to have that awful sour odor and flavor of really stale coffee. Believe me, I can tell the difference between fresh and stale. But just try to tell that to the officious Starbucks’ managers. The second time it happened, I took a pound back and told the manager it was stale. His response (I’m quoting him now): “You’re wrong.”

“I’m wrong?”

“It can’t be stale. Those packages keep coffee fresh for a full year.”

I guess “Just say Yes!” really means the customer has to “Just say Yes!” when the manager tells him he’s wrong.

The next time it happened, at another store, I was informed by its manager that it was impossible for the coffee to be stale because the flavor seal kept it fresh for an entire year (even Starbucks headquarters in Seattle said it’s only 26 weeks). When I then asked how a customer could tell if the coded expiration date had passed, the manager said she wasn’t sure how to read it herself and “I don’t have time to do research for you.” So nice, so warm. I suspect they’re covering up for a massive staleness scandal, one their Flavor Lock technology can’t keep under wraps for long.

But what is the deal with the personality of the typical Starbucks’ manager? That’s the real scandal and mystery. What goes on at those Starbucks management training seminars? Do they implant petty little meanness-chips in their brains to turn ordinary humans into robots of self-righteous attitude?

That’s what I came to think when the great Misto war broke out again. You might recall that a couple of years ago, I wrote about an important victory I won for Starbucks consumers when I got a ruling from the Death Star (Starbucks headquarters in Seattle) that customers were entitled to a refill of the Caffè Misto.

Just to review the bidding, the Misto is a kind of secret Starbucks drink; for some reason it’s rarely on their menus, although to me it’s the only reason to choose Starbucks over the other coffee bar chains. The Misto consists of Starbucks’ regular brewed coffee (often very fresh and strong, as opposed to their overrated espresso blend) with some hot steamed milk added. Other chains call it other names, lattes, au laits, I can’t keep them straight. But if you order a Misto, it costs $2.17 these days for a “grande,” as opposed to $3.79 (!) for an overfoamed, overroasted “grande” cappuccino.

The war broke out initially when some Starbucks managers decreed that there could be no refills for a Misto. Some stores would refill Mistos for the 54 cent surcharge they ask for regular coffee fill-ups, some would hit “Refill-add dairy” on the cash register and charge 97 cents, the price of a regular coffee refill plus 43 cents extra for the dollop of steamed milk. A rip-off, yes, but not the rip-off perpetrated by most store managers, who insisted on no refills. You had to pay the full $2.17 extra to get a Misto refill.

Well, with much persistence I was able to get a ruling from the Death Star in Seattle two years ago that yes, Mistos could be refilled on an “add dairy” surcharge basis for 97 cents. A saving of $1.20 from the full price. A great victory for consumers. Cumulatively, I was saving hard-working coffee-drinking Americans hundreds of thousands, who knows, perhaps millions of dollars a year.

Or so I thought. The problem was, the Starbucks management did not follow through and communicate this policy decision effectively to their store managers and employees. Some would give you a refill for the “add-dairy” (97 cents). Others would give you a refill for the brewed coffee (54 cents), but time after time, when asking for a Misto refill, I would run into an officious store manager who would say ” No refills on Mistos” at all. When I would protest and tell them that for two years I had been getting refills from Starbucks personnel, the usual response was ” They were wrong.” When I would tell them it was company policy, they would say, “No, you are wrong.” (Just say Yes!) They turned almost every attempt to get a refill into a tension-filled ordeal.

Finally, I had enough when a particularly officious manager made a particularly officious point of telling me how wrong I was, and cited as her authority one of the all-high Starbucks Manhattan district managers-who should have known the outcome of the last Misto war.

This time I decided I wasn’t going to take it anymore. Not because of the financial burden, but as a symbolic protest against a hostile bureaucratic mindset run amok. This time I decided I would get a ruling from the Death Star and make it stick.

And this time, I think I succeeded. According to Starbucks media relations person Alan Gulick, who sounded genuinely concerned and apologetic about his managers’ nasty attitude, and who made a real effort to resolve the situation, the ruling I’d won two years ago was reaffirmed . You, the Starbucks customer, are entitled to a refill of a Misto for the “add dairy” price of 97 cents-not $2.17.

What’s more, Mr. Gulick promised that, to insure compliance this time, a companywide edict to that effect would go out to every single store and every single manager in the nation. So now, if any officious, self-righteous martinet of a Starbucks manager gives you attitude about your Misto refill, I urge you to cite this column, cite the ruling and demand they consult the Misto edict. And if they give you any further trouble, call Alan Gulick directly at 206-749-8482. I believe that, once again, this column has saved America’s coffee drinkers hundreds of thousands in overcharges. I urge you to apply for Misto refunds if you’ve been ripped off on refills by mean-spirited managers. It’s a small battle, yes, but I think a symbolically important one.

Meanwhile, I think I realized what it is about the personalities of certain Starbucks managers I find so irritating. They remind me of Jerry! Arrogant, supercilious, irritable rulers of their petty little kingdoms, convinced that only they have the answers-that they and only they are Masters of Their Domain.

Seinfeld ‘n’ Starbucks: One Down, One to Go