Food & Drink

How the Starbucks Macchiato Ruined My Indie Coffee Shop Experiences

Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

My first cup of coffee came from a vending machine.

It was a summer in the late 1990s, and I was making money as a receptionist at a university veterinarian school. I’d scurry around the terrazzo-tiled break area with a handful of coins and my goals – to imitate the polished administrative staffers and to stay alert. Back then, the cup flopped down into the machine’s niche to get filled, and I’d grab it fast and commence drowning the no-name brew with exuberant amounts of white sugar packets and shakes of powdered creamer. This was the start of a ritual marking my independence from whatever communal breakfast beverage I'd find in my childhood home.

Since then, I’ve grown up. I’ve lived in a southern metropolitan city, moved to the east coast, sipped flat whites in Melbourne, Australia’s Collingwood neighborhood, paused for roadside Turkish coffee in Cairo, Egypt, and perfected espresso shots at home, but nothing beats unwinding at your classic American independent coffee shop. 

That is, until a string of awkward ordering moments with baristas confirmed a reality: Starbucks has ruined my afternoon date with Mr. Macchiato.

"I’ll make you a drink with diamond syrup and unicorn cream, if that’s what you want. There are no wrong answers here."

A traditional macchiato starts with a single shot of espresso. Top that with a dash of foamed milk, though I prefer mine with a hint of steamed oat milk and no sugar, please. I call it the little cup with a major punch. I can't afford to be labeled a basic bitch, so I splurge on single-origin bean cups, and I’ve spent upwards of $10 to “get my fix.”

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Lately my macchiato moment has been served with a side of microaggression – or so it seems. The first incident was at a Downtown, Brooklyn place with fiddle leaf fig trees thriving, leather club chairs, and cascara-based spritzers. The barista reminded me that a macchiato isn’t a grande drink and gestured to the petite nature of my beverage choice. I was confused. Nobody else was getting a teachable moment there -- why was I? “We tell every guest this isn’t a Starbucks macchiato,” the barista told me.

My first impulse was to call coffee profiling: They're thinking a Black woman with a southern accent in a fancy place doesn’t know how to order?!? Then it happened a few more times: at a popular, forever-crowded Nolita and SoHo Manhattan neighborhood establishment, at a Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn cafe, and at a Instagrammable Adams Morgan area hotel lobby in Washington, DC. Every time I sucked my teeth! My anger rushed to the bottom of feet and through the tips of my toes. One time, I asked the demure white barista, why the lecture? He looked puzzled, almost if I shouldn’t be asking a question. “It’s a thing we do,” he said. “Especially if you’re not a regular.” Not a regular? I was in there at least once a week.

So I asked, “You do this thing with everyone who orders a macchiato, or just the people who aren’t your regulars?” Sheepishly, he fumbled his reply, leaving me to wonder, are my feelings valid, or am I being sensitive? May I enjoy my afternoon retreat without the chilly condescension-laced discourse on the difference between Starbucks and “real” coffee?

Maneuvering through 2019 requires sitting in one's feelings and dissecting your issues. So I decided to return to that same indie coffee shop and try again. The same barista greeted me a little warily and acknowledged he remembered me from last time. (Finally I’m a regular!) We had an engaging conversation, an exchange full of coffee geekdom that skirted around my core issue.

All the while, inside my head I delivered my own lecture: Sir, I understand beverage styles shift, but customer service is about consistency. A barista can’t pick and choose when to give a coffee explainer. Don’t give me that “you don’t look like a regular” or “we make sure to question tourists” jam just because my hairstyles change too much for you to remember me. It shouldn’t matter if I’m a stranger straight off the bus from Atlanta, Georgia or a longtime neighborhood fixture -- I just want my caffeine buzz without the shot of condescension.

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But I had more important things to do than deliver a rant. Hell-bent on getting to the bottom of this conundrum, I returned to the retail location with the mermaid mascot that every lecturing barista mentions. I had to find out, is Starbucks muddying the macchiato water, or just giving the people what they desire?
 
The line was snaking out the door, every bit as long as my nemesis barista’s shop two blocks away, in an area known for fashion billboards and cobblestone side streets. The Starbucks employee proceeded to take my order. Simply, I asked for a macchiato, and she paused. “Caramel?” she asked. I responded, “Just a straight macchiato, please.” Her brown eyes opened wide and she responded with, “an espresso macchiato or latte macchiato?” So they are playing around with tradition! But unlike with all those patronizing baristas, this transaction is happening with a warmness that reads, “I’ll make you a drink with diamond syrup and unicorn cream, if that’s what you want. There are no wrong answers here.” I’m fulfilled. That was all I needed: a little cup with a strong shot of wokeness.

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Nicole A. Taylor is the executive food editor at Thrillist. She orders her single-origin coffee with unicorn cream and diamond syrup. Follow her on Instagram @foodculturist.