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How to Speak Starbucks

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Recently I was waiting in line at Starbucks behind a couple holding hands and whispering playfully to one another. The young man stepped up to the counter to place their order while his partner took their leather book bags and found a seat on one of the metal stools near the window.

"I'll have one large ice cappuccino," the man began, smiling.

"We don't serve iced cappuccino," came the sharp reply from the officious woman behind the counter in a green Starbucks apron and matching baseball cap. "The steamed milk doesn't mix well with the ice. Instead we serve iced latte." Then she grudgingly added, "Or, if you insist, we can serve a cappuccino over ice."

He answered good-naturedly, "Sure, I guess."

Then she bellowed the order in a singsong voice, to another employee standing only four feet behind her waiting to make the drink, "Grande cappuccino over i-ice!"

Taking a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet the customer added, "And I'll have a...(he hesitated at this point to try to get the name just right) a...grande...mocha...over ice?"

"Do you mean an iced grande mocha?"

"Yes, sure, I guess so." His smile began to fade.

"Iced grrrannday mochaaaaa!"

He shot an embarrassed glance at his girlfriend. She smiled sheepishly, sharing his shame. "Finally," he added with determination, "I'll have one of these ...grande cookies." He threw his shoulders back, relieved that he had finally mastered this game.

"Do you mean a big cookie?" said the woman behind the counter. He slumped into perplexed silence as he nodded. Then he handed over the ten bucks, took his drinks and cookie and meager change, and retreated from the counter.

This scene replays at Starbucks every day. Small, medium, large? No way. At Starbucks it's short, tall, and grande (said grahn-day). If you want a simple cup of coffee, you can't ask for "coffee." It's "coffee of the day." And they don't serve "short" coffee of the day, so if you want a small, be sure to say tall.

If you want an espresso drink it's caffe latte or caffe mocha or caffe Americano or espresso con panna or cappuccino or espresso machiato. Don't ask me to explain what they mean. That's a job for a Starbucks professional. (They have a fancy name too: barista.) And as you negotiate your order, don't forget the decaf and half-caf options. You can get skim milk. You can add flavorings. You can add ice--if you ask for it properly.

The real trick to ordering a Starbucks coffee is stringing all the terms together in the proper order. Starbucks-speak is a language, so naturally it has a syntax.

A Starbucks barista is trained to translate all misphrased requests into proper corporate form. The official drink name is repeated frequently as a means of instruction, often in the form of a question: "Do you mean 'iced grande skim latte?'" You must defer to their authority over the language if you want your drink. ("Yes, I said iced coffee, but I meant iced grande skim latte.")

Next the barista repeats the proper drink name to another barista waiting to produce your drink, who in turn repeats the name back for confirmation. When you pay, its official title is once again announced. When your drink is ready, its name is proclaimed yet again. By the time you take your first sip, you'll call it whatever they want.

Don't bother joking about Starbucks-speak with your baristas. I tried this once. After four repetitions of "iced grande decaf skim latte," (you got a problem with that?) I kidded, "Wouldn't it be easier if you called it a number five?"

No one even cracked a smile. Sullen stares, icier than the cubes floating atop my cinnamon-sprinkled drink, followed me out the door.

Now, Starbucks is not the first place to use special language as a gimmick. Remember when Burger King offered a cheaper Whopper to anyone willing to announce "Broiling beats frying"? Now a diner saying "I love this place" gets one for 99 cents. And nothing could seem sillier than asking for a "biggie" drink or "biggie" fries. But at Wendy's, for 99 cents, it's easy to swallow your pride.

At these fast-food joints, the name games are understood by both customer and employee to be a contrivance. The waitstaff gets a good laugh at your expense, and you're compensated for your momentary humiliation with a price cut.

At Starbucks, however, the rules are different. The language spoken isn't pitched as a gimmick but as gospel. No barista smirks knowingly as you clumsily struggle to string together a proper phrase. No discount awaits you at the end of your assay. On the contrary, you pay top dollar for the privilege.

Starbucks claims that it markets truly unique concoctions for which ordinary names (and prices) just won't do. Here is a description from one of their full-color instructional brochures: "Caffe Latte (CAF-AY LA-TAY): No more than a quarter-inch of foamed milk, to create a delicate first impression; farm-fresh milk is the primary ingredient, steamed to a temperature of 150 to 170 degrees, then poured to fill the cup; espresso, a freshly-drawn shot, full-bodied and complex. The basis for all of Starbucks' popular drinks." Anyhow, CAF-AY LA-TAY sure sounds like it's worth a lot more money than "strong coffee with lots of milk." And it is too--about three times more.

Starbucks-speak also encourages the creation of an educated class of elite consumers, one distinct from those plebeians for whom regular English is still an acceptable tongue. You can observe this phenomenon on most mornings at any Starbucks packed to its revolving door with fluent coffee enthusiasts. Their polysyllabic orders flow from their lips like dialogue in a Fellini film. They know their grandes from their talls; Americano, latte, misto--they're not fazed at all. Variations like skim and decaf are peppered in with perfect syntactical precision. Those who are skilled know exactly where the "iced" goes.

Once in a while, however, a nonconformist happens in and breaks up the flow of the discourse. One morning I watched a woman ask for the following: "A small cup of coffee ...and put some ice cubes in it." The barista was perplexed. Did the customer want an iced short Americano? Did she want a tall coffee of the day over ice? Or did she really want a few cubes thrown into a steamy short coffee of the day?

In the face of such ambiguity the process broke down. The barista tried to explain the nuances involved in icing down a cup of coffee. But the woman wasn't interested in having her sentence deconstructed. She merely repeated her initial request and looked at her watch. People waiting peered angrily toward the front of the line.

Finally, the barista nervously threw a few cubes in a tall coffee of the day and didn't charge for the ice. The customer took her brew and hurried out. The barista was rattled. He didn't even correct me when I ordered a "large."

It was so easy. Now if I go into a Starbucks for a caffeine fix, I deliberately order "my way." I say "Give me a coffee and put some ice and milk in it." It drives the baristas nuts.

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