In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree: …
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
— “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797)
Recently, Starbucks Corporation of Seattle opened its gigantic 35,000-square-foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chicago, which now joins Seattle and New York as a locus of hypercaffeinated hedonism in the United States. It is said to be the largest Starbucks in the world — it is a modern-day Xanadu.
For weeks the writer had attempted to visit this colossal steel and glass structure on Michigan Avenue, only to be thwarted at all hours of the day by long lines of coffee aficionados that stretched far and away down the avenue, part of Magnificent Mile, and into a side street. It was as if thousands of backpack-toting, well-velcroed millennials with torn jeans had discovered urban nirvana en masse and were there to celebrate the triumph of the tall latte inside a cyclopean pleasure chamber. One could only wonder if these were Chicagoans or if Chicago’s Democratic machine was hard at work behind the scenes, importing young liberals from the Pacific Northwest who would perpetuate the rule of this one-party state.
The writer finally gained entry to this gargantuan pleasure dome. It would have fascinated the Mongol potentate Kubla Khan, the subject of the romantic poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge said to have been written during one of the poet’s opium dreams. The four-story-high tech monument to the art of coffee boasts an extensive array of salad bars, pizzas, creative sandwiches such as cornetto con prosciutto, and exotic deserts. It also has an elegant, colorful bar where devotees can order aperitifs or serious cocktails. Naturally, there are many varieties of coffee, which one can lace to form all sorts of concoctions. In the background, the bass of electronic music can be heard thumping authoritatively.
There is a tapestry of numerous coffee labels in the roastery, celebrating source locations such as Sumatra, Uganda, Nicaragua, and the Galápagos Islands. (One is $50 per half pound). Extending up all four stories is a giant copper cask. Starbucks says that this where the beans end up after the roasting — and where they go to de-gas. The roastery also sells accoutrements for the home for coffee addicts, as well as casual clothing that celebrates Starbucks. The only thing missing from this epicenter of all good things is a Peloton farm.
The tables were laid out in an “open source” collaborative environment, as if each person might have something of benefit to offer while imbibing the elixir of paradise. Technology was of course omnipresent: clientele looked into monitors, peering without speaking, as Simon and Garfunkel might have sung. Everywhere it seemed that youthful fingers were tapping furiously at electronic devices, dispatching electromagnetic waves at near the speed of light, carrying what the dispatcher thought are original insights about daily life. For many, the art of conversation seemed to be verboten and defunct.
But it is one thing to describe; it is yet another to determine what this earnest enterprise means in sociological terms.
First, it means that Seattle, once an insulated place of gentle, caring people and lots of rain, has exported itself. Indeed, a touchy-feely, liberal city of matrixed folks has taken on the linear, top-down American Midwest, known for the strict command-and-control systems of Fortune 500 industrial behemoths that lurk all over in a place ominously called Chicagoland. Indeed, this is where socialism meets capitalism head on, and where the Americano meets the real American.
Second, it suggests that Seattle is now comfortable in its own skin and has enough self-assurance to penetrate the heart of the industrial badlands. Seattle too, has developed big shoulders, and is making a statement that it, too, is great.
Third, it means that the American consumer is plumb loco. Tens of millions of millennials are willing to pay outrageously for avocado spread bagels, blueberry oat cake, and pumpkin bread, all washed down with a tall macadamia latte with extra foam and nutmeg. It so happens that $7 per day (the price of one tall caffè mocha) for one year compounded at 5 percent yields a future value after 30 years of almost $11,000. If this investment were repeated over 30 years, one would have over $165,000 of capital.
Fourth, since the ancient world, man has sought a being or spirit greater than himself. With waning trust in institutions such as government, the Church, and the rule of law, one needs a greater force to believe in. Indeed, in earlier times it was megamalls and Nike Town. Now Starbucks is filling this void and is also helping millions of people answer the ontological question, “Who am I?”
Fifth, it is no secret that Western societies have elevated the importance of the self. Products with an “i” preface do not speak to teamwork, humility, or self-effacement, with those values deemed outmoded — for other generations that still wear neckties. The way we drink our coffee and pamper ourselves is quite consistent with this grandiose view of the self.
Finally, one may surmise that this caffeine obsession could be a form of avoidance behavior. As the United States prioritizes nuclear and conventional threats from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran and as the impeachment of President Trump drags on, many people would rather be at roasteries, peering silently into laptop monitors, multitasking with fingers pounding savagely at iPhones, signifying very little — or nothing.
The implications of this Brobdingnagian installation are profound. Doubtless this shrine for the epicure is worth seeing by both Chicagoans and tourists who come to the Great American City. It is very cool. It is awesome.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.