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Coffee with steam

Some conservatives are angered by opinionated quotes that Starbucks puts on its cups.

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published March 25, 2005


Moments after picking up a venti vanilla latte from a St. Petersburg Starbucks, Sam Maston removed his cup's cardboard sleeve to inspect a message printed beneath.

"America's national debt is now $7.5-trillion, and it's skyrocketing, even as America's population ages," the cup read. "There will never be a better time to start paying off this crippling debt than today."

The quote, from environmentalist Denis Hayes, didn't faze the 29-year-old Maston.

"I'm a pretty hardcore Democrat," said Maston, who wore a black rubber wristband bearing the words I DID NOT VOTE 4 BUSH. "I think they should put that stuff on there."

Not everyone agrees.

The Seattle coffee chain has raised some eyebrows over its "The Way I See It" campaign, which prints quotes from thinkers, authors, athletes and entertainers on the side of your morning machiatto. The goal, according to the company, is to foster philosophical debate in its 9,000-plus coffeehouses.

The quotes aren't all that inflammatory, though several mirror Starbucks' hallmark tall-grande-venti pretentiousness. Take this one from film critic Roger Ebert: "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it."

The problem, critics say, is the company's list of overwhelmingly liberal contributors, including Al Franken, Melissa Etheridge, Quincy Jones, Chuck D. Of the 31 contributors listed on Starbucks' Web site, only one, National Review editor Jonah Goldberg, offers a conservative viewpoint.

Considering Starbucks sells millions of cups of coffee each day - some specialty drinks at $4 and up - it's no surprise some customers have complained to Starbucks' Web site, labeling the campaign "offensive" and the company a proponent of "the destruction of family values and virtues."

"I want to enjoy your product without having Earth Day Network propaganda thrust at me," wrote Malachi Salcido of East Wenatchee, Wash.

Yvette Nunez, a 27-year-old Republican from Tampa, said she hadn't noticed the quotes on her weekly caramel machiattos. On "tall" cups, the text is obscured by a cardboard sleeve.

"There are a lot of great conservative quotes, but oh well," she said. "I'm not surprised. I'm used to being under-represented."

Starbucks' founder and chairman, Howard Schultz, is a major Democratic campaign donor who last year gave $1,000 in Florida to Peter Deutsch's failed U.S. Senate campaign.

Seth Hoffman, president of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans and an occasional Starbucks drinker, said he tries to avoid buying some "liberal" products, like Ben & Jerry's ice cream. He said Starbucks should consider using more conservative voices, but if they don't, he's unlikely to stay away.

"I know about what the company does; I know what my money's going to," said Hoffman, 32. "For me, with Starbucks, it's not what's on the cup, but what's in the cup."

Company spokeswoman Valerie Hwang said the goal is not to stir up controversy. She said the company has lined up 60 contributors with "varying points of view, experiences and priorities" in an effort to promote "open, respectful conversation among a wide variety of individuals."

Each cup also bears a caveat letting customers know that the quote is "the author's opinion, not necessarily that of Starbucks."

"The program is such that we're not requiring our customers to read," Hwang said, "but rather the quotes are there for our customers to discover and enjoy."

The cups also refer customers to the campaign's Web site, www.starbucks.com/wayiseeit where ordinary Joes can submit opinions for publication on a future cup. The site, as well as fliers available in each Starbucks store, encourage angry customers to lash out if they're upset.

Plenty of conservatives may do so. But liberals? Maston, for one, shrugs off the cup-quote controversy, and suggests most Starbucks addicts will do the same.

"If I was that upset about what they put on there," he said, "I wouldn't come here."

Jay Cridlin can be reached at 727 893-8336 or cridlin@sptimes.com