Update: Dumb Starbucks was revealed today to be the work of Nathan Fielder, the host of Comedy Central's “Nathan For You” docu-comedy televsion program. Congratulations to Mr. Fielder for creating the greatest food media dogpile of 2014…so far. We now return you to our dumb coverage of Dumb Starbucks, due next in Brooklyn in 2 weeks.
In the world of dumb story assignments, following the hordes to Dumb Starbucks ranks right up there. I'm usually up for a somewhat more classy story–like the opening of anything Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski are working on, or hanging out with Jerry Seinfeld and Patton Oswalt at Handsome Coffee Roasters, or drinking coffee with Tim Gunn—but this morning my assignment is decidedly more low-brow: head out to Los Feliz to see the spectacle that is Dumb Starbucks.
The news of this pop-up/performance art piece (?)/dumb trademark-flouting café first broke on Saturday, and well, dumb as it may or may not be, I knew I had to check it out for myself. Whatever the point of it all, the store certainly has people excited. The atmosphere in the parking lot today was strangely similar to an anticipated opening of any café or restaurant: jazzed up people, waiting in long lines for the doors to open, with the three guys at the front of the line claiming to have been there since 4am.
There was a little grumbling about Dumb Starbucks opening later than advertised (by the handwritten sign in the window) but generally people were orderly and jovial for a Monday morning. The (many) other reporters in the parking lot looked decidedly less excited about the assignment, but meeting Manny Guevera AKA Manny Streetz was a highlight. He was having tons of fun reporting to Ryan Seacrest's radio show live on the air about all things Dumb Starbucks.
Once the doors finally did open, things looked a lot like at any other Starbucks: a long line of eager customers, a fully-stocked pastry case, a somewhat disinterested barista working a super-automatic espresso machine, and a massive wall of menus hanging above the cashier. Definitely Starbucks-y, definitely serving coffee, but also definitely rather chintzy feeling, which I guess is the point? The chairs, tables, baskets of coffee accessories for sale, and the espresso machine itself all looked like remainders from a 1990s Cool Beanz Java Hut, and the “Dumb Jazz Standards” and “Dumb Taste of Cuba” CDs for sale by the register looked about like the home-printed mix CDs you might buy out of the trunk of a Camry in the parking lot of said 1990s Java Hut.
Which isn't to say that whoever is behind this experience didn't put in a lot of effort to realize their “dumb” vision: the signage they put up above the store is rather convincing, the “Dumb Starbucks Coffee” logo is actually printed onto the paper cups, and the “Dumb” menu board hits the whole spectrum of drinks on offer at Starbucks.
No indications as to who or what was behind the concept were forthcoming, and it didn't seem like most of the people in line really cared–though several people did say they liked the popular idea floating around that it could be UK street artist Banksy.
Of course, the real question here is why exactly is this happening? Why Dumb Starbucks, why now? It's easy to see this as a general lampooning of Starbucks, (which lends a bit of credence to the Banksy idea), and to see calling one of the biggest symbols of the post-industrial service economy “dumb” as a lampooning of capitalism generally. Though just adding the prefix “dumb” to everything is rather thin as far as lampooning goes, so it's hard to see what actual point on capitalism is trying to be made. Maybe this is all some sort of (dumb) publicity stunt for something unrelated? Maybe it's a complexly ironic commentary on the state of the trademark and intellectual property systems in America?
Personally, I think it's pretty “dumb” to make fun of Starbucks–after all, many of us drank our first cappuccino or latte or triple frappuccino thingy at a Starbucks. Let's also remember that Starbucks employs more people than any of our wonderful little third-wave roasters could ever hope to in this economy. So how fun would it be if at the end of this “joke”, it all added up to something significant about job creation and the economy, maybe even about those issues for coffee farmers and not just for consumers? Or some other actually productive reason to have put this whole project together? Don't get me wrong, I laughed my sides off at the recent Starbucks SNL sketch–it’s funny that the machine talks and gets everyone's names wrong and all–but calling Starbucks dumb seems pretty simplistic and kind of… dumb. Right?