Wednesday, August 06, 2008

When Coffee Fights for the People

So, at some time that isn't right now, I'm ordering a sausage on the streets of Toronto and a shirtless Dirty Hippie in a nasty backpack comes up and asks the sausage vendor and I where the nearest McDonald's is located. The vendor - a lovely old German woman - and I confer and give him what we think will be the best bet. He then shares with us why he would be such a dick as to ask a sausage vendor where the nearest McDonald's is located (rather than having a sausage).

He wants a cup of coffee. Assuming that we're incredulous at this pronouncement, he waves a hand at the five or six coffee shops within sight of where we stand and explains: "these guys all rip you off, man. They charge, like, two bucks for a cup of coffee and McDonald's is, like, a buck-fifty and you get a free refill. These guys are all so fucking corporate, they just rip you off and make you bleed."

Now, in fairness, among the many shops were a Second Cup (who ripped me off $20 for internet that they didn't actually provide, the fuckers - but that's another story) and a Starbucks, both of whom fit into the corporate paradigm presented by Dirty, the hippie. But the other three were independent operations. One of them was a free-trade enterprise that proudly announced their lack of internet access and clearly catered to the area's Dirty Hippies.

So how does a place like this get branded "corporate terrorist" in contrast to that real-values paragon of counter-culture down-home values, McDonald's? It's the free refill.

For years, nobody would drink the piss being served at Rotten Ronnie's unless it was cheap and free. But as McD's knew that to muscle all the family diners out of their locations, old-timers raised on free coffee and cheap gas needed a place to sit and kvetch all morning. So McDonald's played hardball, offering the same crap coffee for the same crap price to keep the noise of the revolutionaries to a dull roar.

Fast forward a couple of decades and you see something new happening in Coffee. Starbucks has overturned the cart and found a way to sell a five dollar cup of coffee and make people WANT to pay for it. The coffee is not better, but for a generation that considers Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives entertainment, the packaging of the coffee trumps all other considerations. We live in a moment where the most crucial consideration of lifestyle budget planning is the daily "Latte Allowance".

However, the small shops find a way to fight back. Understanding that foamy milk-swilling yoga-monkeys in Lululemon pants were taught better standards by their parents and would be less willing to whore out to corporate demands if the alternatives offered slicker absolution, the indy shops started selling better coffee at the same ridiculous prices with the same attention paid to coffee accessories - cookies, mints, craft breads, etc. (likewise, Lululemon markets seaweed in their pants, a double-marketing success when it's revealed that there is no yucky seaweed in their seaweed pants - making Lululemon both environmental and conscious).

McDonald's, gearing up for their challenge of Starbucks - the only franchise chain still capable of facing up to them since Subway mistakenly relied on Jared the shrill douchebag nerd for their marketing campaign - quietly goes a step further. They start selling decent coffee. At the same low price, with free refills. Then they market the other crap to combat the Starbucks brand and, at the same time, label all the coffee shops who mimicked Starbucks' model in order to survive as corporate ripoff artists. Only McDonald's has your best consumer interests at heart. Only they will give you, the little guy, a fair shake (they can't call it a milkshake due to the lack of dairy).

We see it everywhere. Wal-Mart, with their roll-back campaign that has devastated wages across the entire globe and lowered the standard of living in Canada and the US to the tune of 4% per annum - making the new poor increasingly dependent on Wal-Mart for their consumer goods and groceries. Fannie-Mae and Freddy-Mac, offering 45 year mortgages to those same poor people in order to give them the allusion of an American dream of home ownership at sub-prime interest rates. Never mind that the industry can't survive on sub-prime income. The government will bail them out. The American dream is a speculative fiction anyway.

And McDonald's and Starbucks, who offer benefits to their employees rather than money and trap them in a minimum wage quagmire that's nearly impossible to escape. You can't take time off to better yourself when you're living on $8/hr. You can't afford real food. Or a bed made of real wood. Or a car that won't break down and uses fuel efficiently.

But Mr. Dirty, frothing shrilly against corporate evil as he challenges both the woman trying to sell sausages for a living and the fair trade merchants across the street as corporate shills just out to gouge your eyes and steal your wallet, he can afford a cup of coffee at McDonald's. Try asking the owner of that franchise where you could find a good sausage on a bun and see what answer you get.

Fuck the revolution for all its stupid assholes.

Tune in next week, when we take a look at who pays Paul Watson's salary and why running down fishermen off Canada's coast is so very, very exciting.

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