In some ways, it seems odd for a coffee shop to be popular in China, where tea is the most common beverage. And yet, coffee shops are all the rage in China. Starbucks is by far the biggest brand, but they are far from the only one. There are some other chains and there are lots of small coffee shops. Several people have asked me what Starbucks is like in China, so I took my camera with me yesterday. I discovered that Starbucks (and maybe especially the one I was at) is a hard place to take photos because the lighting is very uneven. This is the closest store to my house—about a 15 minute walk. It is not a huge store and it is part of a hotel lobby (although set apart from the main hustle and bustle). Like other Starbucks in China, there is still quite a bit of seating. Customers are much less likely to stop in and get their coffee to go. There aren’t any drive thrus yet (at least that I’ve seen). Going to a coffee shop is more of an event. It isn’t just about the coffee, it is also about the environment and spending time with friends. People meet for various reasons and enjoy a relatively calm and quiet environment. According to the first dialogue in my new Chinese textbook tea houses are rather loud and exciting places, but coffee houses are quieter. I’ve never been to a tea house in China, but I do know that coffee shops are generally quieter than restaurants. I enjoy working in coffee shops, so this characteristic fits me just fine, except for the days when it is hard to find a seat.
But what about the coffee, you might be wondering? I am not a coffee connoisseur, so I am not the best person to ask this question. I only like coffee drinks from coffee shops, like a latte. So I’m pretty sure that the coffee is about the same as Starbucks in the U.S., but I could be wrong on that. I suspect they use the same sorts of ingredients to make the drinks, but local versions where possible. I think they use Chinese milk (at least the boxes are completely in Chinese) but the cranberry bit topping must come from the U.S. Overall, the menu doesn’t seem as extensive as in the U.S. And there are more tea options—a green and black tea latte and a choice between “Chinese tea” and “international tea.” I haven’t tried the Chinese tea, but the international tea is Tazo brand (owned by Starbucks, my sister once told me). Sadly, they do not have a chai tea option. Also, the seasonal drinks are different. When I got here in September there was a French vanilla latte and a dark caramel latte, but no pumpkin spice latte (I was okay with that). On the 1st of November, the stores turned into Christmas land. They are now selling Christmas items, drinks are served in red cups, there are new seasonal drinks, and English Christmas music plays in the stores. The seasonal drinks right now are a white chocolate cranberry mocha, toffee nut latte, and tiramisu latte. The toffee nut latte is pretty good, but I do miss peppermint mochas.
Each store also has a selection of (generally) western style baked goods. There are a couple of types of muffins, some cookies, cheesecake, and a few others. Some of the cookies are labeled as “American style” chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin. Right now they also have a chocolate molten marshmallow cake that is imported from America and a peanut chocolate bar that looks amazing. There are also some sandwiches and salads for slightly more substantial fare. I’ve never tried any of them though, since I don’t usually think about eating a meal at Starbucks.
Starbucks is probably the place where there are most consistently English speaking clerks. Sometimes they speak to me in English, and almost always they use English to talk about drinks to each other. Even if I order a “dabei xiangcao natie,” the barista calls out “grande vanilla latte” to the other baristas. They are also quite efficient. The lines can be long, but the wait for drinks usually isn’t too long.
All these drinks and atmosphere don’t come cheap. A tall latte is 30RMB, which is about $5USD. The seasonal drinks start at 33RMB or $5.50USD. Going to local coffee shops usually doesn’t save you any money—they are just as expensive and sometimes more expensive than Starbucks (and not generally for better quality products). This is even more expensive when you consider that, at least according to this fascinating article, the average wage for a low-wage worker is 10RMB. Obviously, the people that are drinking Starbucks are not low-wage workers. They tend to be young or middle age professionals. There are plenty of people driving their car to Starbucks to use their ipad with a shiny iphone 6 (which run about $1100USD) in their pocket. On their way into the store they pass parking lot attendants and laborers building a new subway station—people making much closer to that 10RMB/hour. Starbucks is just one example of how big the gap between the rich and poor is in Beijing.