The untold truth of Starbucks

You know Starbucks. It's that chain of coffee stores which exists on what seems like every single street corner in the world. They've got that logo — you know the one. And then there's that smell; that unmistakable, inimitable Starbucks smell. Not many places can lay claim to having an iconic smell, but these guys have nailed it.

Ever since its foundation in 1971, Starbucks has grown from a modest Seattle coffee shop to the corporate behemoth whose defining characteristics are recognizable to people from every corner of the Earth. What may seem like a simple staple of our day-to-day lives, however, is actually a fascinatingly complex organization with a vivid history and a whole host of bizarre little quirks that many people are totally unaware of. From its racy early logo and the literary origins of its name, to their foray into the music biz, and a clandestine branch in Langley, this is the untold truth of Starbucks.

The founders

Starbucks fans have three people to thank for bringing the company into the world. The first is Gordon Bowker, a college dropout from Seattle who had discovered his love of coffee on a trip to Italy in 1962. The other two were Bowker's roommates, Jerry Baldwin and Zev Siegl. Spurred on by their love of good coffee, they began roasting their own coffee. Together, they started a company and named it Starbucks. This early iteration of the legendary coffee shop sold coffee beans, tea, spices, coffee machines and accessories. It wasn't until many years later, under a different owner, that they began to sell coffee drinks.

But Bowker, Baldwin, and Siegl wouldn't be with Starbucks forever. In the '80s, a young salesman named Howard Schultz bought out the company. Today, Bowker lives a modest life, having for a time owned Peet's Coffee & Tea (where he still serves on the Board of Directors) and Redhook Ale Brewery. Baldwin is the proprietor of his own wine company in California and served as President of the Association Scientifique Internationale du Café. Siegl is a business advisor and motivational speaker.

The "first" location wasn't really the first

The site of the original Starbucks is something of a place of pilgrimage for coffee fans, even today. The famous tourist spot, however, is actually the store's second location, to which it moved in 1977. Nonetheless, it constitutes a must-visit for visitors to Seattle from all around the world.

The store isn't much different to how it was back in the '70s: it's a small building, and there's nowhere to sit or hang out inside (a remnant of the company's original operation as a place to buy coffee beans and accessories, rather than drink coffee). That's not to say they haven't modernized at all, though — you can now buy coffee drinks at the original store, which actually offers everything you'd find in any other modern Starbucks branch. In fact, to a passing observer, the only thing that would really give any indication as to this store's long and hallowed history are the strange, barely-recognizable logos emblazoned around the room.

Their original logo was raunchy

The Starbucks logo is one of the most iconic in corporate history. Few can quite match the sheer recognizability of that white mermaid on her green background — the McDonald's arches, perhaps, or the Nike swoosh. Still, though, it's up there. But that wasn't quite always the Starbucks logo.

The original logo — which is still plastered all over that early Seattle branch — was actually brown, and depicted the mermaid as topless. The idea was that the two-tailed mermaid, who was based on an image found on a 16th century woodcut, was supposed to appear as seductive as the coffee itself. Naturally, complaints were made, but Starbucks didn't see a problem until they reached the point at which the logo needed to appear in large on the side of delivery trucks. The logo was therefore redesigned, the mermaid was given her modesty (plus a new hairstyle to boot) and the legendary modern icon was born.

The name had novel beginnings

Nowadays, nobody puts much thought into what the name Starbucks could possibly mean. And why should they? After all, everyone already knows what it means: it's the name of a coffee shop. Once upon a time, however, the name might have seemed a little peculiar — and that's because it finds its origins in a very specific place.

The founders of Starbucks took the name from Moby Dick, the legendary novel by Herman Melville. In the book, Starbuck is the name of the first mate of the Pequod, Captain Ahab's ship, and provides a calmer contrast to the obsessive nature of Ahab himself. Starbucks, however, was actually a second-choice name for the company. Gordon Bowker had actually wanted to call the company Pequod, but Bowker's marketing partner Terry Heckler was unconvinced. Eventually, the two settled on Starbucks as a name, presumably having ruled out 'Ahab', 'Ishmael' and 'Captain Boomer'. It's for the best, really.

They work hard for that fabulous aroma

Yep, it's that classic Starbucks aroma. In his 1997 book Pour Your Heart Into It, Howard Schultz describes it as "heady, rich, full-bodied, dark, suggestive." Whatever it is, it's one of the defining features of Starbucks' image and pervades practically every Starbucks store across the planet.

But keeping that smell strong is hard work for the company. Coffee beans tend to absorb odors, meaning it's easy for them to be ruined by contaminant smells. To prevent this from happening, Starbucks banned smoking in their stores long before it became the law. They also prevent their employees from using perfumes and colognes, and refuse to sell chemically-flavored coffee beans. Strong-smelling goods such as soup, pastrami and other foods are also off the menu (though the store does serve a small selection of simple foods such as sandwiches and pastries that are baked off-premises). What results is one pure, simple smell: coffee. Frankly, we wouldn't have it any other way.

Those apron colors aren't just for show

The classic green staff apron is practically as recognizable to Starbucks customers as the logo itself, but it's not the only one that exists. In fact, there's a whole range of other aprons which all have their own individual meanings and purposes.

The green apron is standard, of course. Military vets have the option of wearing one embroidered with an American flag, while staff members who have graduated from the Starbucks College Achievement Plan have one embroidered with a mortarboard. Orange aprons are worn in the Netherlands to celebrate King's Day, while the purple apron is saved exclusively for each year's 26 barista champions.

The black apron, meanwhile, is worn by Coffee Masters, who have a certified knowledge in the field. Occasionally, promotional events will involve the company giving out a few special aprons to each store, such as the pale blue apron for the launch of Frappuccino Happy Hour or the red aprons you might see during the holidays.

Baristas definitely have a dress code

The apron isn't the only item on the Starbucks dress code worth a look, though. In fact, the company is actually pretty strict on how it allows employees to present themselves. Here's a run-through of the rules.

Hair must be kept looking "natural", meaning no bright colors such as purple, pink, blue or green (though this seems to vary by store). Rings are allowed, but only if they have no stones, and watches, bracelets and wristbands are forbidden for food safety reasons. The apron must be kept clean, unwrinkled and unstained, while your shirt must be solid black or white and they prefer if you tuck it in. Piercings should be small, fingernails clean,and tattoos are allowed — but they must be tasteful and can't be on your face or throat. Finally, any hats worn must have the Starbucks logo, and pants, shorts or skirts should be khaki or black.

On the no-go list: blue jeans, hoodies, t-shirts, yoga pants, cowboy boots, canvas shoes and, of course, colognes and perfumes.  

The tables are round for a reason

Starbucks' round tables exist at pretty much every location the company owns, and although they may not exactly evoke the warm, inviting comfort of smaller, living-room coffee shops, they're built that way for a very good reason.

According to Karen Blumenthal, author of Grande Expectations: A Year in the Life of Starbucks' Stock (via Reader's Digest), the store's round tables are made that way to make you feel less lonely and more at home. "Round tables are more welcoming than those with square edges," she writes. "And people look less alone while seated at a round table." It just goes to show that even the most innocuous characteristics of stores like Starbucks have been thought through over and over again. And sure, maybe a cynic would suggest that Starbucks make their tables this way in the hopes of keeping people from wanting to leave their stores, thus making for money from each customer — but who are we to say?

There are some cup sizes you might not know about

You're probably well aware of Starbucks' cup sizes. You've got the Tall (12 ounces), the Grande (16 ounces) and the Venti (20 ounces). But there are some other cup sizes which, despite not appearing on the menu, are available to Starbucks customers.

The first is the Short, which was one of the two original cup sizes sold by the company. It's only 8 ounces, and constitutes the smallest drink size that Starbucks offers, despite being a fairly regular size for homemade coffee. It's only available for hot drinks, and doesn't always show up on the menu boards. Another is the Trenta, a new-ish drink size that measures in at a whopping 31 ounces. It's only available for iced drinks such as iced coffee, iced tea, lemonade and other cold drinks, and usually costs 50 cents more than the Venti size. But honestly, you probably don't need it — the human stomach can only hold around 32 ounces of liquid, and a Trenta Frappuccino (which Starbucks reportedly once sold) would contain over 1,000 calories and 100 grams of sugar.

They really are everywhere... almost

If there's one thing everyone knows about Starbucks, it's that they're everywhere. Seriously — there's a good chance you can probably see one right now, and if you can't there's probably one right around the corner. The sheer scale of Starbucks' worldwide domination was put into context by Quartz in 2014. Their mapping of the chain across the world found that Starbucks existed in 63 countries, with notable absences in Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. They also found that the distribution of Starbucks in cities mirrors the shape of the cities themselves, demonstrating the sheer expanse of the stores across each.

Quartz also found that Seoul had the most Starbucks at the time, closely followed by New York, Shanghai, London and Chicago. They also found that, if you travel from Boston to NYC to Philadelphia, you'll never be more than 10 miles of a Starbucks (and you could continue down to Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and Virginia and only be more than 10 miles away twice). So, yeah. Lots of Starbucks.

There's a "Stealthy Starbucks"

Of all the Starbucks locations around the world, however, perhaps most curious of all is that which exists deep inside the CIA's headquarters at Langley in Virginia. Known affectionately at "Stealthy Starbucks," the baristas who work at that branch are put through a wide array of background checks and interviews before they're allowed to work there, and even after getting through all that, they're escorted by agents in and out of their work area.

Despite its clandestine nature, however, the Langley branch is one of the busiest in the USA, and serves thousands of analysts, agents, economists, engineers, geographers, and cartographers each day. Despite appearing like any other Starbucks, its purpose is to provide a humanizing environment for agency workers, many of whom work in high-pressure scenarios and don't have their smartphones to help them tune-out (they have to leave those in their cars). It also provides a setting for job interviews for current agents looking to get reassigned. And no, before you ask — nobody gives their name at the counter.

They tried to get into the music biz

Back in 2007, Starbucks formed Hear Music, the company's very own record label. It had gotten into the music business by selling the music of artists such as Ray Charles and Bob Dylan in stores across America. That same year, however, it made its first proper signing: Paul McCartney.

McCartney had spent his entire career (including during his time as a Beatle) at EMI, save for a brief foray into working with Columbia Records in the '80s. The label itself didn't go far, though. After signing a smattering of artists (including Carly Simon, whose album on the label sold poorly, resulting in a failed lawsuit against them) they essentially shut down in 2008 after turning over management of the label to the Concord Music Group. They continues to sell CDs until 2015.

The whole sorry saga just seemed to prove that, no matter how many headliner acts you sign, attempting to make money by selling CDs in coffee shops during the advent of the age of digital music isn't a good idea after all. Who knew?

There are secret Starbucks locations

The CIA branch might be known as "Stealthy Starbucks," but that doesn't mean it's the only secretive branch around the world. The others, however, are stealthy in a different sense. The first of these branches opened in Seattle in 2009. It was named 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, but a little disclaimer on the front door read "inspired by Starbucks." In 2011, it was converted back into a Starbucks (which it been originally, as well), and it was permanently closed in 2017. 

Still, the formula must have been somewhat successful — two more camouflaged Starbucks have opened in the city. In 2012, the company opened one in New York.

The Starbucks Reserve brand is a similar scheme, attempting to provide a more upmarket experience for coffee lovers which eschews the company's logo. Both this venture into the high-end sphere and the stealthy Starbucks branches represent — depending on who you ask — either an attempt to experiment with new ideas in a relatively low-risk space, or a patronizing and cynical attempt to siphon off business from local chains and entice customers who balk at the Starbucks brand. Either way, be careful if you think you've escaped the clutches of the world's most pervasive coffee brand — they may have you already.