The chain’s cavernous, three-story coffee hall favors showmanship over quality or affordability, critic Ryan Sutton says
If you’re not yet convinced the city’s corporate luxury takeover is reaching Twilight Zone status, consider the greater Meatpacking District. Upscale clothing boutiques attract so few patrons they appear closed at midday. Empty storefronts abound. An RH-branded restaurant lies around the corner from a Lexus-branded restaurant. A Buddha-themed chain brasserie sits opposite another Buddha-themed brasserie.
And in December, just a block north of the Apple Store, a tri-level Starbucks Reserve Roastery opened. It’s a 23,000-square-foot caffeine theme park hawking designer sunglasses and nitrogenated coffee laced with beef jerky.
Floor-to-ceiling windows literally overlook another Starbucks across the street. It fits right into the neighborhood, which has as much soul as the concessions at JFK Terminal 4.
Inside, leather bannisters and tawny ceiling squares evoke the color scheme of a caramel Frappuccino. Larger design elements — a storage tank the size of small nuclear reactor, snake-like tubes that transport beans across the store — take their cue from “the hardworking ethos of the Meatpacking District,” according to the Starbucks website. What a nice blue-collar mantra for a place that sells $150 leather aprons, $23 coffee daiquiris, and $9 slices of oil-slicked pizza.
Once upon a time, Starbucks was a seminal force in U.S. coffee culture, prompting millions of consumers to do away with cheaper instant coffee for a more expensive specialty product. This was second-wave coffee, and it helped turn the Seattle-based company into a $78 billion behemoth.
But in recent years, the Seattle-based company has lost ground to Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia, third-wave shops often distinguished by single-origin beans, lighter brewing methods, and staffers eager to engage in the backstory of the product. And the chain’s reputation as a welcoming place — it has long portrayed itself as a third place between work and home — took a hit last year when two black men were arrested for trespassing while waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia store (in response, the company closed 8,000 stores for a half-day of bias training).
The Reserve Roastery, oddly teeming with security guards who pace to and fro, represents Starbucks’s attempt to capture some third-wave market share, with massive stores already open in Seattle, Shanghai, and Milan. The size of the New York location — it can accommodate nearly 600 people at any given time — suggests it will easily become the city’s most-trafficked culinary establishment of 2019.
I drop by the venue’s “Experience Bar” for a flight of two coffees ($9) and the cashier asks me, unprompted, whether I’d like them filtered through a siphon for $22. I ask for something simpler, so the staffer suggests splitting my order between a pour over and a proprietary vacuum filtration method known as the Clover, which, I’m told, “stands for coffee lover.” This costs $18.
There’s nothing wrong with spending this much on a good beverage. But third-wave coffee isn’t about upselling. It’s about helping the consumer find the techniques and beans that are right for them, with staffers navigating selections the way a sommelier might do with a wine list. And to be fair, one might encounter a touch of basic education at Starbucks Reserve; a barista explains my pour over will result in a lighter cup, with the Clover resulting in a more robust brew.
But too much of the experience here involves salesmanship, showmanship, and superlatives. A sign by the roasting machine touts “the best arabica beans in the world.” A menu advertises the siphon method as if it were a magic trick, promising not a meaningful technique but rather “one of coffee’s most dynamic moments,” as well as a “dazzling sensory experience.”
Reserve Roastery feels less devoted to coffee as craft, and more as a study in performative connoisseurship, with a dose of reflexive approbation thrown in. Order any coffee — even the default Christmas blend, which tastes like wet cardboard — and a barista will surely with respond with “great choice.” Another staffer lets out a long pleasure moan when he finds out I’m drinking the (frothy, fragrant) apricot syrup-spiked cold brew.
The nitro coffee with peppercorn foam and beef jerky, by the way, tastes like a waterlogged latte.
And again, there are the prices. A standard coffee costs about as much as at La Colombe or elsewhere. But if you’re in the mood for a coffee tonic — a shot of espresso sweetened with bitter soda water — then you’ll pay $16. (Blue Bottle asks $4.) Want a coffee scale for your home? Amazon sells a great one for $48. Reserve Roastery thinks you need a Bluetooth-equipped version that syncs with your iPhone for $150.
One wonders: Can Starbucks really feel like a true third place, a community institution, if it charges so much more than its competitors? Can it truly feel welcoming with six or more security guards walking around at any given time? And why is the gift shop selling gilded $4,500 statues of the Starbucks mermaid doing a split?
At least some of the baked goods qualify as halfway decent. Fruit tarts are everything they should be: buttery crusts, almond-y frangipane, and piles of golden apricots or crimson strawberries.
The coffee chain has never managed to attract a Dunkin’ Donuts-like cult following for its sweets or for its savory fare. A typical Starbucks croissant looks like something that got half-baked and stepped on. Here, that pastry is marginally better — sweet and flaky, but greasier than a deep fried chicken. Sandwich brioche serves as fine conduits for soft piles of prosciutto, while caprese sandwiches involve focaccia as mushy as a wet hamburger bun.
The food comes courtesy of Princi, an international Italian chain that Starbucks is partnering with across the world. If the coffee maker were smarter, it would show off the wares of local bakeries and sweet shops, turning this mammoth space into a pop-up hall for, say, Hot Bread or Taipan. Alas, the global chain thinks consumers want a bland, duty-free experience.
This explains why Starbucks thinks Princi could waltz into the pizza capital of the U.S. and serve something that comes out of the frozen foods section at a 7-Eleven. Cooks reheat the slices in one of six TurboChef ovens, a device that is supposed to blend the crisping quality of a convection oven with the speed of a microwave.
Hot Pocket sleeves result in better textured pizza than this. The mozzarella is so insipid and the dough so soggy that it’s actually hard to tell where the flavorless cheese ends and the bread begins. The tomato sauce, in turn, packs a sweetness that’s as cloying as anything coming from the kitchen of Chef Boyardee. In a town where great pizza costs $4 a slice, Starbucks somehow commands $8.50.
Do things get worse here? You bet. Around 9:30 p.m., I subject myself to a coffee daiquiri.
Bartenders have been doing interesting things with coffee for the better part of a decade, using the beverage’s nutty, chocolate-y notes to add complexity to Negronis and Old Fashioneds, both available here. But the driving force behind the list isn’t so much about improving flavor as ensuring that Starbucks-brand products occupy as much menu real estate as possible. Trademark symbols sit above so many entries — Starbucks Reserve®, TeavanaTM/MC — that one wonders if IP lawyers have more of a hand in concocting the potables than the bartenders.
The daiquiri tastes like what would happen if one mixed espresso with limp apple juice and hid the muddy liquid under a layer of foam. Or consider the Final Say; the neon-green product, laced with matcha, tequila, and strega, recalls the time my college friends and I mixed Gatorade with Everclear and expected people to show up to our party (you can guess how that went). The cocktails cost $20 to $23 each, more than at the city’s best drinking dens.
It’s a shame, because these prices — and quality issues — detract from so much of what Starbucks does right, from its no-tipping policy (most cafes suggest gratuities), to its acceptance of cash (Bluestone Lane is credit card-only) to its progressive labor policies (including paid parental leave for baristas).
And since third-wave coffee means being more transparent about sourcing, Reserve Roastery offers smart blurbs about environmental leadership and social responsibility throughout the supply chain. Those museum-style didactics, alas, are posted where almost no one will see them: en route to the restrooms in the basement.
The $150 smart Thermos, however, is sold right by the front door.