Is Starbucks the New Johnny Appleseed?

No, thanks, hun. I don't patronize corporate capitalism.

No, thanks, hun. I don’t patronize corporate capitalism.

If you believe Starbucks.com, the company’s CEO Howard Schultz is a true American hero.

“In 1983, Howard traveled to Italy and became captivated with Italian coffee bars and the romance of the coffee experience. He had a vision to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition back to the United States. A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home. …

Our mission [is] to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.

Now, thirty years later, Schultz has planted over 18,000 coffee shops worldwide.

This founding myth strikes me as a retelling of how Johnny Appleseed helped tame the west by spreading apple seeds across the frontier. To be honest, I never knew he was a real guy until I read this Straight Dope article on him. His name was John Chapman and he was a horticulturist who, in the early 19th century, established many apple nurseries in developing settlements in order to sell apple trees to new settlers–so they could make hard cider.

So here we have two American myths about rugged heroes who seed the earth with their product, both involving the proliferation of a hard drink, both speaking about the spread of civilization.

But I started to get the feeling that Schultz and Appleseed aren’t the same guy when I realized how much I like Johnny Appleseed, the myth:

He was a vegetarian. He preferred to sleep outdoors and avoided towns and settlements. He thought it cruel to ride a horse, chop down a tree, or kill a rattlesnake. The stories go on. The settlers viewed these attitudes as preposterous and outrageous but amusing as hell.

He went barefoot in any weather, even snow and ice. He would entertain boys by pressing hot coals or needles into the soles of his feet, which had grown tough and leathery. He thawed ice using his bare feet.

He was friendly with the Indians, bringing them medicinal plants. In turn, they treated him kindly and helped him on his way. He blamed much frontier violence on mistreatment of the Indians by white settlers.

Howard Schultz, on the other hand, seems to be concerned with one thing only: reproducing his shop infinitely. He’s got a viral mindset. Of course it’s questionable whether Johnny A. did the right thing–even by his own ethics–by clearing wilderness in order to cultivate apple trees, making the frontier more attractive to the very civilization he seemed to be fleeing.

But Schultz is completely out of control. His actual legacy starkly contradicts the story he tells about himself. Spreading the communitarianism of the Italian coffee shop around the cold metropolises of America? If that was the point of his brand, then why does it piss him off so much that Italians don’t want Starbucks in their country? In a recent interview with CNN he fixed his gaze and declared, “There will be a Starbucks in Italy at some point.”

It sounded like the decree of an imperialist, not the humble wish of an American hero.

One comment

  1. Maybe it’s a similar phenomenon to how a given Whole Foods vegetable display is always designed to mimic the appearance of an open-air market street vendor, or in turn how Walmart’s grocery stores are called a “Neighborhood Market” even though they in no way resemble a market, and they are installed along 4-lane highways, not in neighborhoods. Americans love to buy a false sense of some imaginary long-lost “community” that probably nevere existed in the first place.

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