Better Latte Than Never

As you may know, The Outland Institute is a celebration of culture in all its forms. And that includes… coffee shops… oh look, I don’t have to justify myself.


Picking up The Age this morning, I was annoyed to see a giant Starbucks cup emblazoned on the top right-hand corner of the front page. “Oh great,” I thought – somewhat sarcastically – “Now The Age is doing Starbucks promotions, no better than the Herald Sun, young people today, benches in the city, it’s not real music and so on”. A closer look, however, revealed the logo was there for a far more exciting reason – Starbucks is closing two thirds of its stores in Australia, reducing its presence to a mere 23 locations.

Obviously I feel sorry for the staff, who will undoubtedly be frakked over in the proud tradition of Australian industry. But the steady demise of Starbucks can only be a good sign in the ever-vigilant battle against the forces of cultural hegemony. (You got that memo, yeah?)

According to The Age, the Starbucks president Howard Schultz said the downturn was due to “challenges unique to the Australian market”. I’m hoping those challenges were the refusal of Australians to buy bad coffee, but it’s just as likely that chains like Gloria Jeans and Hudsons have already filled the Starbucks niche. Also, isn’t it oddly fitting that Starbucks a) has a “president” and b) his name is Howard Schultz. That’s the most “president-of-Starbucks” name I could possibly imagine.

The article also quotes “management expert” Professor John Roberts, claiming Starbucks clashed with “a culture heavily influenced by stronger brews brought in by European immigrants”.

It has been said that Australia’s cafe culture is actually an Italian cafe culture. I read some years back that this came about as a result of our immigration patterns. To grossly oversimplify, US Italian immigration was predominantly pre-WWII, while Italian mass-migration didn’t happen here until the 1950s. The modern day espresso machine originates around 1947, when Gaggia produced a cost-effective machine that used pressurised water instead of steam. So while pre-WWII Italian immigrants may have brought excellent food, opera and swarthy good looks, the post-WWII immigrant arrived with all this and an espresso machine strapped to his back, ready to introduce the skips to the glory of good coffee.

Well, that’s not strictly true, but the Italians did bring the idea of the European cafe and as Italian migration continued (16% of all arrivals between 1949 – 1959), people started to open cafes like the ones they remembered from home. For most Italian cafe-owners, this involved importing their own espresso machine. There are many claims to the first espresso machine in Australia – some say that Myer‘s Melbourne store had a steam driven one, which they were obliged to have an engineer oversee as it was legally classified as heavy machinery – but Bean Scene Magazine says the first was probably installed in 1952 at the Andronicus Brothers’ Café on George Street in Sydney (thus starting the Sydney/Melbourne rivalry that lasts to this day).

A survey released a fortnight ago by BIS Shrapnel found that most Australians drink instant coffee at home, but when we go out it’s espresso all the way. This is markedly different to North America, where it’s still common to sell filter coffee, and espresso coffee is considered a recent trend. When Starbucks erupted in the ’90s it was a something new for many Americans, but a bad cover version of what Australians had been enjoying for decades.

The surprising thing is that Starbucks tried to enter Australia with no research or understanding of the local market, reflecting both bad planning and a surprising arrogance (If you want to know more about the Starbucks management plan, I heartily recommend you read No Logo by Naomi Klein).

Finally, I’d like to mention the title of today’s entry. Many years back, around the last ice-age, I co-wrote a song called Tingly. Sung by Frente‘s Angie Hart, it appeared on everything from Qantas inflight to Safeway Super-radio, as well as dozens of episodes of Home And Away and Neighbours. A breezy, 60s-style pop song, I decided that all breezy 60s-style pop songs were about women waiting in cafes so I included the line “You’re never here on time, but it’s better latte than never”. In fact, “better latte than never” was a piece of graffiti I had read in the toilet at Rhumbarella‘s and I wrote the entire lyric around that line. When it came to record the song everyone vetoed the line as being too silly, and Angie sang the more sedate “better late than never”. So now I finally get a chance to use it – I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.

(Later that year Tingly blitzed Triple J’s Hottest 100. It reached number 97.)

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5 Responses to Better Latte Than Never

  1. Narrelle says:

    Thank you for the double-shot of intense coffee history, leavened with some frothy milk of your personal music history. I loved ‘better latte than never’ but I’m so used to the version that was made that I can’t work out how it would scan.

    The demise of large chunks of Starbucks is the source of much schadenfreude around here. Everyone feels sorry for the staff – and I’m not sure having Starbucks on the resume will help them get a job in a real coffee shop – but there is definite glee otherwise. I’ve thought of their syrup-flavoured coffee as nothing more than ‘milkshakes for grownups’ for many years now.

    Maybe we should have some kind of coffee celebration to metaphorically dance on the grave of our enemy?

    Um. Or maybe I’m taking it all a bit much to heart.

  2. outlandinstitute says:

    There is definite glee, isn’t there? It’s like our team has won the grand final. And our team is coffee.

    Incidentally, there’s a Starbucks at Guantanamo Bay. Along with “a McDonalds, a combined Subway-Pizza Hut, a Wal-Mart-like big box store called the Nex and a gift shop” according to an article from In These Times entitled “Inside America’s Gulag” – http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3023/inside_america_gulag/

    Oh, and Gloria Jeans have been linked to anti-gay fringe religious groups, according to Crikey – http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20071114-Borders-between-charity-and-Hillsong-church-thin-.html – honestly, best to avoid the chains all together.

  3. Narrelle says:

    These bizarre links to hilarious/terrifying organisations (depending on one’s frame of mind and recent experiences at the time) probably explains the crapness of the coffee. Or it should.

  4. Narrelle says:

    This comment from a story about which stores are closing:

    Ming Du, manager of the Gloria Jean’s Coffees store on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, said he would be happy to look at resumes from employees of the Starbucks store about five minutes’ walk away, which will be closing. “We could take a couple of them,” Mr Du said.

    He said he did not expect his business to benefit from the closure of the nearby Starbucks because the customers who went there were “not interested in real coffee anyway”.

    So, I don’t know. Homophobic dickheads who make substandard coffee having a go at other people’s substandard coffee. That’s hardly the Christian spirit!

  5. ocker gazza says:

    Australian cafe culture is what happens when Italian cafe culture is adopted by a culturally northern European country. Which means lots of milk. Which means people linger and treat the cafe like a pub, or a Viennese coffee house.

    Italian cafe ‘culture’ revolves around the espresso, drank standing up at the bar. Not much milk, except for milk coffees in the mornings. Coffee is not something lingered over. Alchohol is.

    Meanwhile, however, Australians, due to their isolation from Europe, think they’re somehow onto something, not realising the English speaking world has caught up. Anglo cafe culture is really what we have now, and you can find it all over the English speaking world. It has little or no link to Italian migration, even if it might’ve once had a link here. Anglo cafe culture means drinking milk coffee made the Italian way (but consumed all day, i.e. not the Italian way) and it exists from Seattle to Liverpool to Bendigo.

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