Update, November 19, 2019: Ten thousand people showed up for the grand opening of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chicago, aka the World’s Largest Starbucks, on Friday morning.
They began lining up at 4:30 a.m., Eater Chicago reports. The temperature was 22 degrees Fahrenheit. The doors did not open until 8:55 a.m. The line eventually stretched three blocks down Michigan Avenue. Some of the faithful had dyed their hair green in celebration. The 35,000-square-foot store reached its 1,000-person capacity within 20 minutes. “The first thousand who made it inside celebrated with cheering, wide-eyed wonder, selfie sticks, and plenty of coffee, of course,” wrote Eater’s Daniel Gerzina.
It was as though they’d never seen a Starbucks before.
Original post, November 13, 2019: Can we agree that Starbucks is a bit cult-like? If there were a scale between utilitarian and Scientology, Starbucks would be closer to the Scientology side. I have heard Starbucks mentioned in wedding vows—as in, “I will get you Starbucks every morning.” I’ve also heard people vow never to go there ever because they’re offended by the drink-ordering system or because they think the coffee is too expensive for something that tastes burnt. When I started working there, I was told it was an honor and a privilege to wear the green apron, one that was not to be abused. Like all cults, it’s impossible to feel neutral about Starbucks.
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Which is why people lined up at 9 o’clock on a bitterly cold Chicago morning (12 degrees Fahrenheit) this week for a sneak peek at the world’s largest Starbucks, which opens Friday. On one side of the door were the faithful, the Starbucks employees and devout customers who had been given special tickets to the event. On the other were the media, who can be bribed to show up to just about anything with the promise of free food and drink and are full of self-loathing because of it.
This is no ordinary Starbucks, mind you: This is a four-story Starbucks Reserve Roastery. There are just five other Starbucks Reserve Roasteries in the entire world—in Shanghai, Tokyo, Milan, New York, and Seattle, the homeland of Starbucks—but the one in Chicago is the newest and, at 35,000 square feet, the biggest. (The space used to be a Crate & Barrel. In a weird coincidence, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz used to sell Crate & Barrel housewares before he discovered his destiny lay in coffee.) As the name implies, the coffee beans are roasted on site and transported directly to the grinders at the facility’s espresso bars via pneumatic tubes. Yes, espresso bars, plural. Also a bakery, an “Experiential Coffee Bar,” and an actual bar with alcohol, and also cold brew on draft made from beans that have been aged in whisky barrels. There is also a curving escalator, the first of its kind in the Midwest, and I have to say, it was pretty neat. If I were a small child too young to drink coffee, that definitely would have been my favorite part.
A Starbucks Reserve Roastery is like a super, super nice Starbucks, for people who think that plain old Starbucks isn’t fancy enough. There are beans for sale, but they’re not the Verona or Pike Place Roast you find in a regular Starbucks. Instead, there are special Reserve blends, roasted on site by a crack team of six baristas-turned-coffee-experts, that go for $20 to $40 per half-pound. At the Experiential Coffee Bar on the third floor, you can get your coffee prepared in a myriad of ways: espresso, pour-over, French press, Chemex, Clover, cold brew, or siphon (a particularly fascinating-looking method that involves glass globes and a spirit lamp and dates back to 1831). Ordering a coffee flight lets you taste the same coffee beans prepared in multiple ways. From what I could taste, Roastery coffee doesn’t have the burned flavor of regular Starbucks coffee. It will cost you, though: Nothing on the menu is under $5, and a specialty drink like a Pistachio Latte is $8. In a way, I’m glad the Pistachio Latte is so expensive because I enjoyed mine a lot—it was mild and nutty and not too sweet—and if it were cheaper, I might be tempted to break my vow of not giving Starbucks any more money this holiday season because it cruelly discontinued my beloved Gingerbread Latte.
The whisky-barrel-aged coffee had a nice flavor to it, and like barrel-aged maple syrup, it doesn’t contain any alcohol. According to a partner (the brand-preferred term for Starbucks baristas), the best way to drink it is cold-brewed without any dairy, because the cold brewing process removes most of the acidity. I did not taste any of the cocktails because it was 10 in the morning. Other people were braver; I couldn’t tell from their reaction if these cocktails were worth $16, or if their enjoyment came from scoring free morning booze. There is also beer and wine and, naturally, rosé.
The pastries come from Princi, a bakery based in Milan. I suspect everything is mass-produced somewhere and then baked at the Roastery because it’s all suspiciously uniform, but the pastries are definitely made with butter, and they are serviceable. When the Roastery actually opens, it will also serve pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. (Princi is not an entirely unknown quantity: There is already one in Chicago and a few more in New York and Seattle.) A conveyor belt moves the food between floors; this is another thing that would impress me if I were a small child.
The Roastery’s 200 partners are all very friendly and definitely morning people. Or else they were putting on a very good show. Their name tags identify where they lived before; it appears that a large number either moved to Chicago to work at the Roastery or were specially imported for the opening, and it’s a fair reflection of Chicago, at least in terms of ages, races, and body types. (Maybe not cheerfulness in the morning, though.) If you want to know anything about coffee, just ask any of them anything and they will be able to tell you. The furniture is all minimalist modernist, made out of blond wood and surprisingly comfortable (though less comfortable than some of the Crate & Barrel couches it replaced). Because none of it is upholstered, it will probably hold up well against all the tourists, business travelers, and locals who want $8 coffee or a different venue for drinking $16 cocktails. (Will we all come together in acceptance and happiness, or will the locals curse and avoid it if they can help it, the way they try to avoid about everything else on Michigan Avenue?) The WiFi is reliable. There are $650 denim jackets for that hard-to-please person on your shopping list. Really, there’s nothing to quibble at besides the prices and the fact that it’s, you know, a Starbucks—the Starbucks that represents just about everything we love to hate about Starbucks.