Starbucks has been in Brazil since 2006 and I only just recently got the chance to try it out. Rather, I should say that I avoided it for as long as I could, seeing as how it attracts the fancy and wannabe fancy people. I suppose that once they expand to the degree that they have in the US, more and more normal folk will start going. The fact that most are situated in malls helps this to happen. If my quick check of stores is right, there are upwards of 25 Starbucks in Brazil, with over 20 of them in São Paulo and the rest in Rio. I wonder what kind of research led them to focus so heavily on the SP market. I see Starbucks as a sitting down place but Paulistanos are known for being on the move.
Onto the experience. I went to the local mall to escape the heat and saw the store was rather empty so I took that as my cue to try them out. I got to the counter after passing the display case which looked quite familiar (except for the pão de queijo and coxinha). There were two female employees on station and they both kind of stood there with a Starbucks grin on their faces while I looked for my drink on the menu. After a second they butted in to my choosing process and asked me what I wanted, ready to ring me up.
This is typical in Brazil, you arrive in any store and employees are bombarding you or asking you what you want when you’re clearly browsing or silently deciding. One view is to say they are very attentive people but the reality likely lies in managerial/corporate guidance (Step 1 – When a customer comes in…attack!), until it became the norm and now no one questions the status quo.
Anyways, I asked for what they call the “café do dia” by saying that I wanted “um café normal, pequeno” because I felt silly asking for a “tall” (or…”tau” as native speakers would probably say). Ringing me up for an expresso, I had no choice but to say that in fact I wanted the “tau”. It was US$2.25. Back home, it was US$1.50 the last time I had one. Maybe I’m wrong here but I’m pretty sure the coffee in the US is imported yet getting it “from the source” here in Brazil somehow costs an extra .75 cents. At any Brazilian corner café, though, I could get a “média” (half milk, half coffee) for about US$1.50 but usually such places aren’t that inviting.
In the US, the Starbucks cashier would simply turn around, fill up my cup and hand it to me. Time elapsed: 20 seconds. Here, I sat down in the empty Starbucks and waited over 5 minutes for them to
grow the coffee ready my cup and call out my name (for tricky concoctions like mine, they needed to ask for a name). Upon handing it over, the woman asked me how I was doing and stood there looking like she wanted to start a conversation. After responding and thanking her, I thought I’d slip on over to the post-prep station (where one can put sugar, etc, in their coffee) and top off the coffee with some milk. Oops, no milk. Possibly an add-on or a different drink all together, meaning the price just went up for my normal cup of joe.
Once I sat down, that’s when the Starbucks “magic” happened. That’s their hook (get the same experience in one Starbucks as you would in any other) and, well, they mostly succeeded. Suddenly, sitting down, I was back in California scribbling my thoughts and plans down in my notebook. In a social setting, but not being social. I’d have brought my laptop but I wasn’t sure if they had wi-fi and was pretty sure, like most places that offer wi-fi in Brazil, that they wouldn’t offer outlets to plug in at.
So, would I go back? Maybe to get away from the heat. Maybe if they were more empty than full on that day too. All in all, the experience made me wonder if I was not just a tourist and this was some sort of “staged authenticity” set-up. Come to think of it, Starbucks in general practices staged authenticity because the CEO, Howard Schultz, lifted the idea from Milan cafe culture. In fact, when he opened his first café in Seattle, it was named Il Giornale, not Starbucks, it played opera music and was standing-only. Go figure.