Food News

What is "Coffee as Theater"? And Do We Need It?

April  6, 2016

This morning I learned that the world’s largest Starbucks will open in New York City in 2018 and—prepare yourselves—it promises to serve up “coffee as theater.”

Photo by Alpha Smoot

I actually double-checked the date to make sure the story hadn’t run on April 1st, initially thinking it was a joke. It didn’t and it isn't. So what exactly does “coffee as theater” mean?

Here are my top 5 guesses as to what to expect when it opens:

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1) Musical theater: It’s the latest hot (get it?!) show to hit Broadway since Hamilton—don’t miss the opening number, “Clouds in My Coffee.”

2) Singing waitstaff: Fingers crossed Starbuck's employees get uniforms as fun as Monica’s on Friends.

3) Drink and a show: Maybe it will be like Medieval Times? Let the tournament of coffees begin! Oooh, I hope the cute barista tosses his rose to me when he wins!

4) Murder mystery meal: Anytime someone orders a drink with an extra shot (eh, eh?), the lights go out, someone screams, and the show begins.

5) Performance art/social experiment: All of the employees are non-hipster actors—playing the role of coffee-snob hipsters—trying to see how uncomfortable they can make you feel when they insist a good pour-over coffee really does take 11 minutes and 13 seconds to make.

I'm kidding, of course, and Starbucks has, sort of, provided some sense of what they mean:

In Seattle, customers are encouraged to chat with roasters and baristas and learn the intricate details of roasting and brewing coffee. The extra engagement is supposed to foster a culture in which people think of coffee as a craft, one tenderly guarded by skilled employees using six different brewing methods to extract flavor from the beans.

“In New York, we want to take elements from what we originally created and build something even bigger and bolder, celebrating coffee and craft in a completely unique and differentiated way,” said CEO Howard Schultz in a statement.

That doesn’t clear it up much, though.

Yes, coffee can be more divisive and intimidating than it should be, so I'm all for their intention—learning more about coffee can only be a good thing. But is talking to someone to learn more about what you’re drinking really theater?

What if this catches on? Will Subway Sandwich Artists™ finally live up to their titles and commence with dramatic discourse as they build your sub? “Next, I’m gently layering the salami, and now, for a final expressive squiggle of mustard!” Will every dinner out end up feeling like a scene from Portlandia?

Probably not—why the compulsion to combine coffee and theater in the first place? And shouldn’t it be up to the customer to decide whether or not they want a dramatic reading lecture with their cortado? In the end, I don’t think we need coffee as theater—I’m perfect happy with enjoying the two separately.

What do you hope "coffee as theater" looks like?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.

1 Comment

M April 6, 2016
Of course it's theatre, because Starbucks is doing it and they're NOT a purveyor of "coffee as craft," so they have to play pretend.