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Russia September 28, 2007
The Green Mermaid Wades Ashore
Starbucks and the coming Moscow coffee wars By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4

The Seattle-trained staff was impressive. As at any Starbucks, one person took orders at the register, not waiting for each customer to leave the register, while others prepared the orders and placed them on a counter at the opposite end of the line. Pretty basic stuff. But in Moscow this standard coffee house procedure took on the air of something revolutionary and even a bit freakish.

When Yasha wheeled back to the table with a venti latte and tuna sandwich, the line had dwindled. I got up and within three minutes was seated again and sipping.

"Can you believe this shit?" Yasha was holding open his latte for me to see what he claimed was a lack of coffee. Sure enough, it was almost pure steamed milk. Starbucks had shafted an invalid! Steamed Milk Radiating Everywhere, indeed.

Then a live band kicked in. A Russian rock quartet that was set up just behind the Starbucks and in front of the Levi's store launched into--there was never much question--Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb."

Yasha and I looked at each other, speechless. But as I started wheeling him toward the mall exit, I overheard a gaggle of middle-aged Americans huddled around the Starbucks counter. They were making a bulk purchase of oversized Starbucks Moscow collector's mugs. The woman doing the paying was heavy-set and wore a navy blue windbreaker with the words "Boeing Leadership Center" over an enormous left breast. Could the scene unfolding really be this pat?

When they had secured their mugs, I walked up to the woman and identified myself as a journalist. Then I experienced an acute case of hack performance anxiety. I just went blank, had no idea what to say to this woman who was staring at me in confusion. I finally muttered something about her mugs and asked if she also collected Hard Rock Cafe shot glasses.

"Huh-uh. Nope," she said. "I've never been to a Hard Rock Cafe."

She lifted up one of her boxed mugs for me to get a good look. "We're all from Seattle, though," she said. "Starbucks is like the home team."

"Right," I said. "So... What are your feelings about the home team here in Moscow?"

She pointed to the line. "It sure seems busy. I think they'll do very well here."

She excused herself and I turned around to locate the wheelchair. In my absence, Yasha had found the manager and was complaining to her about the lack of espresso in his latte. She looked genuinely pained as he explained his disappointment, like a Disney Land official apologizing to the parents of a 10-year-old with leukemia who had just seen Mickey Mouse pull off his own head for a cigarette break. The manager apologized several times, went over to the counter, and made Yasha another latte, gratis, this one mixed correctly.

If I had been thinking better that day, I would have told her to throw in two Starbucks Moscow souvenir mugs.

* * *

Starbucks obviously arrives in Russia too late to fall into either the "arrival of capitalism" or the "rise of the middle-class" narratives. Compared to the 1990 opening of the Pushkin McDonald's or the 2000 landing of the Ikea starship, coverage of the Starbucks opening was low-key and focused on the Seattle firm's global expansion. For the most part, it was a Starbucks story, not a Russia story.

But not in every case. The Reuters Moscow office must have been feeling nostalgic for the early 90s, because they actually got a little world-historical about the whole thing. As if it mattered, the wire made sure a reporter was present to record the name and statement of Starbucks' first Russian customer. Let it be known: Alyona Mikhailova, 34, reported Reuters, "placed Russia's first official Starbucks order, for a venti, or medium, cappuccino." No official time of day was given, but sources close to the event tell The eXile it was a little after nine in the morning. Moderate winds were blowing from the northeast.

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Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at

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