Why Some Starbucks Workers Think The Chain Has An 'Identity Crisis'

Is Starbucks a café in the French-accent-mark sense, or is it a fast food place?

If we're going to bring up French cafés, we should talk about Café de Flore. When the manager of Café de Flore in Paris installed a big coal heater in 1939, it became what would be called decades later a "third place" — somewhere other than work or home where people could hang out and socialize. A history of Café de Flore in Gastronomos says that thanks to that heater, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and other French existentialists started meeting, philosophizing, and writing there. Café de Flore never got called a fast food joint.

A sociologist coined the term "third place" in 1989, and by the early 1990s Starbucks had embraced the concept for its fast-growing chain of coffee shops (via MJV). Third places are actually much more than a well heated spot outside of work or home. They're a cornerstone of democracy, a place where people with different backgrounds and values can get to know and understand each other better. This sort of place was disappearing during the post-war suburbanization of America, and Starbucks decided it was up to the monumental task of stepping up and filling that void.

Starbucks is the No. 2 fast food chain in America

QSR magazine released its annual "QSR 50" list last month — a ranking of the 50 biggest quick service restaurants, aka fast food restaurants, as measured by sales in the United States. You can probably guess most of the top five. McDonald's is No. 1 by a large margin. Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell, and Wendy's made the top five, too. You may be surprised to hear that Starbucks is the second biggest fast food chain in the nation, according to QSR. That's right: the chain whose website says its mission is to be a third place for community gathering is actually the second place when it comes to fast food. Starbucks has most definitely earned its high ranking, with more than 15,000 locations and almost $19 billion in sales in the U.S. — well ahead of the nearly $13 billion No. 3 Chick-fil-A made in 2020.

In an upbeat message to investors in July, announcing significant sales growth during the spring 2021 fiscal quarter, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson talked about the third place and the "Great Human Reconnection" that was happening as the COVID-19 pandemic started to retreat (via The Motley Fool). "As humans we belong together, and Starbucks was built for this moment," Johnson said. He went on to thank his "partners" — Starbucks-speak for baristas — for making the Great Human Reconnection happen at Starbucks stores. Some partners on Reddit weren't so sure about that.

Workers say Starbucks is losing the big, comfy chairs

A Reddit user and Starbucks barista started a thread on the social media platform by saying that Starbucks might be having an identity crisis. "I think it would benefit this company a lot if it just chose a business model to stick with," Redditor LilKaySigs wrote. "This company tries too hard to be the best of both worlds, a warm and welcoming cafe and a fast food drive-thru. ... I'm not going to make a decent connection in less than one minute."

LilKaySigs used In-N-Out as an example of a place that has done everyone a favor by choosing a side. "They've mastered customer satisfaction by having full awareness that they're a fast food place first," LilKaySigs said. "I really don't care which direction Starbucks heads into, but trying to be the best of both worlds ends up hurting both the baristas and customers."

Commenters chimed in to lament the changes since the good ol' days, when drive-thrus weren't the norm and employees actually enjoyed hanging out in big cushy chairs with friends after their shift was over. "Mobile ordering really did a number on the business, I think," one commenter said.

QSR reported that Starbucks will continue to trend toward mobile ordering and uncomfortable chairs. Expect more pickup locations for mobile orders and even cafes with no seating at all, as Starbucks strives to "cater to the customers' increasing desire for convenience." The only question now is, can we get fries with that?