Is the “Ritual” You Enjoy at Starbucks a Figment of Everyone’s Imagination?

When my dad used to pick me up on weekends as a kid, we had a tradition of going to a Mexican food place down the street and ordering a combo meal for the candy.

For years, though he was long gone, I kept going back to the restaurant and collecting the candy. It made me feel good to have a ritual to continue to lean on.

Until one day, in my late teens, I opened the shoebox full of Kit-Kats and Smarties and Dum-Dums and thought, Why the hell do I have this? It didn’t make me feel connected to him anymore. If anything, it was a burden, and clinging to this old ritual was making me sad. I threw it all away.

I remembered about this shoebox of candy the other day when I was thinking about food rituals — how they start, and how we don’t notice when they’ve stopped working for us. Until one day, we open the metaphorical box, see the thing clearly, and think: what is this still doing here?? 

Sometimes we create food rituals with family and friends, or as time we carve out to spend in solitude, perhaps with a book. Other times, marketers create them for us.

Do we notice when the feeling isn’t there? Do we let ourselves notice? Humans are bad at detecting when we’re unhappy, one of my friends, a philosophy professor, remarks.

More often, it seems easier, gentler on our sensitive souls, to pretend we are happy.

And this is the only way I can explain my seven-year loyalty to Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes.

The “PSL” tradition began in 2006 when I was working at Starbucks in Orangevale, California, and living with my aunt. It was a small ritual we enjoyed sharing. We still text each other when we order one, but now we go alone, in our separate cities. Neither of us thinks it tastes that good. And every year the price goes up.

I go less and less every PSL season — but I still go. I come away with a 12 oz. drink that tastes okay (a bit thick and syrupy), cost five bucks after the tip, and will probably give me gas.

Story immersion is part of life. I appreciate the ways we use narrative to interpret, and to heighten, our experiences. Like Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And with a European family, I personally can’t imagine life (or holidays) without food rituals.

But sometimes they rob us of opportunities to pursue new pleasures that would be meaningful to us in the present. They can prevent us from feeling in control of our lives. They can stop us from spending five bucks on something we would actually enjoy, because we’ve spent it on something we used to enjoy… or that a company told us we enjoy.

In these cases, as we gobble hamburgers or suck down Coke in the name of happiness, there is a growing sense of disappointment, enslavement even, that we can’t quite — or won’t let ourselves — put a finger on.

I’m not the only Starbucks customer who is unhappy.

Advertisers are good at planting rituals. I know this because I work in marketing. As we’re exposed to these stories, they slowly merge with our own. In articles by Huffington Post and Time Business about why Starbucks is a model of success, “loyalty,” “experience” and “ritual” come up repeatedly.  

But what is the Starbucks ritual? Did everyone used to go there and get a latte with a friend?

What is the Starbucks “experience”?

“People really have [gotten] to know Starbucks as the quintessential coffee shop, where they can sit and be welcome over a cup of coffee,” the branding expert told HuffPo.

That sounds like almost every coffee shop I’ve ever been to. Except, actually, Starbucks.

Most people use the drive-thru, or are grabbing something on their lunch break, or are businesspeople cranking out emails or having a loud obnoxious conference call. In fact, Starbucks seems to have largely killed the traditional coffee shop experience. I have never eavesdropped on an interesting or heartfelt conversation in a Starbucks lobby. Ever.

The real Starbucks experience — from what I’ve observed — is sitting alone at a cramped table, using the free wifi and waiting until no one’s looking to steal the newspaper.

Friends come together to celebrate their pumpkin spice latte devotion, the Starbucks website coos.

One wonders if marketers are ingenious for capitalizing on the fact everyone feels alone these days. We long for a feeling of togetherness, of being welcome. We also seek peace and refuge. So we accept stories of “Zen moments” and flock, like zombies, to places like Starbucks.

Most of the customers I served at the Orangevale Starbucks were not, from what I could tell, having a Zen moment.

They came in two or three times a day (usually alone) and rarely tipped or engaged in conversation. They waited with annoyance in a line that stretched out the door. They were different from the customers I’d served at a local coffee shop back in Utah. I always wondered why they kept coming back if they were so miserable.

But now I understand.

They had been promised something, and they were there to collect.

Rituals give us a sense of belonging, a billion journalists have said in reference to Starbucks. Sometimes they do. Other times, they give us a sense that we belong to something. We are trapped. By a latte. Or not even a latte, but a story about a latte. A brand.

This was the general malaise of the zombie line. And somehow I didn’t realize that over the years I’d joined it. But last week in the Starbucks drive-thru, I opened the box and saw the PSL clearly. I realized I’d stopped enjoying it years ago but subconsciously hadn’t wanted to disappoint myself. Then I wondered: had I ever enjoyed it? Did it really start with me and my aunt, or was it planted by Starbucks — by the siren’s whisper: Hey you… create a ritual.

In any event, starting in 2014 I won’t be buying pumpkin spice lattes anymore. (Who’s the “severed partner” now?)

Do you have any food rituals you’ve outgrown?

xo Chelsea


I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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2 thoughts on “Is the “Ritual” You Enjoy at Starbucks a Figment of Everyone’s Imagination?

  1. You’ve reminded me of my relationship to Starbucks. First, a disclaimer, from the moment I tasted it in High School, I hated the PSL, my over-sweet seasonal latte of choice was always the gingerbread. Still, Starbucks does have a certain pull for me, it’s the memory of adolescence really, the first “adult” thing you get to have is coffee. I went there after the prom (somewhere there exists a pretty fantastic picture of me sitting on the Starbucks counter in my prom getup). I wrote my college application essays with a venti gingerbread at my side. I studied frantically at the Starbucks as an undergrad, though by then I’d graduated to unsweetened lattes.
    I think part of what Starbucks is counting on is that they really are one of the first places you can hang out as a kid, when you’re just starting to have a bit of independence. Sure a non-chain coffee shop would have been a lot better, but in the suburbia I came from such a shop didn’t exist, and so it’s Starbucks that contains this echo of the excitement of looming adulthood. And its ubiquity does actually add something. While the best Starbucks will always be the one that served as my high school hangout, any Starbucks, even the hellish little airport kiosk, gives me a slight adolescent thrill. Corporate and awful as it is, I still kindof like that when I want that particular feeling, it’s never very far away. If I remember to get I with half the syrup, the gingerbread latte still tastes almost as good as I remember.

  2. Beautifully-put and a perspective I hadn’t considered – coffee as a coming of age ritual. I didn’t experience Starbucks until I was older, but my dad sometimes poured me a cup of decaf at his office and I felt a similar thrill. I think I was 8. And so the coffee love began…

    Yours is a ritual that you clearly own and that still means something to you, so I don’t think the corporate venue matters. If you come across the prom pic, share it!

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