Londonist Interviews 'Winter', The Starbucks Tourist

Dave Haste
By Dave Haste Last edited 176 months ago
Londonist Interviews 'Winter', The Starbucks Tourist

Winter, the Starbucks Tourist

On Monday we noted the recent London arrival of ‘Winter’, the Californian who has spent 12 years (and counting) trying to visit every branch of Starbucks in the world. Well he’s still here, so we thought we would take the opportunity to ask him a few questions…

Why ‘Winter’?

In college I decided I wanted a different name, something unusual but simple, and after brainstorming and trying out various names, I decided I really liked the sound and imagery of the word ‘Winter’.

When you started ‘Starbucking’ in 1997, did you ever think that the company would expand as much as it has? Would you have ever have expected your quest to take this long?

Absolutely not! I specifically had the notion, ill-conceived though it was, that I would visit all 1500 stores (the count at the time) and then finish. It should have occurred to me that Starbucks would grow indefinitely, but it simply did not until I was so far into the project that I did not want to quit.

Have you had any contact with Starbucks about your adventure? If so, what was their reaction?

After I began taking photos in late 1999 and created the Starbucks Everywhere website, Starbucks caught wind of it, probably sometime in 2001, and a lady from the PR department contacted me to find out if I had a political motivation. Or at least, this is the answer I've been giving for the last 7 years, but it might be wrong. It just occurred to me to seek out that original e-mail, and here it is:

Thank you for forwarding your web site to our chairman, Howard Schultz. Wow! You have been busy. When did you begin your site and what are your plans for the future? It seems an idea born out of a hobby. I am interested in hearing more. In your email you wrote that you thought this was a project Howard could "get behind." Could you elaborate on what you had in mind?

According to her message, I was the one who forwarded my site to Howard Schultz, though I don't remember doing this at all. I don't seem to have saved any further e-mails from her, but I'm pretty sure she asked if I had a political motive.

Have you experienced any adverse effects from all that caffeine? Has a doctor ever advised you against drinking so much coffee?

As a matter of fact, back in 1997, in my regular life, I would drink 4-8 shots of espresso a day. I subsequently suffered from sleeplessness, anxiety, and worst of all, heart palpitations. My doctor did advise me to cut back on the caffeine, and ever since I've tried to limit myself to brewed coffee, and just 1-2 cups a day. The big exception is, of course, when I am out Starbucking, but I rarely ever sustain a high level of caffeine for more than a few days.

You always drink a cup of regular coffee in each store. Have you considered switching to anything else? Decaf perhaps? Have you never been tempted to splurge on the occasional cappuccino, frappuccino, mocha, latte, etc?

When I started conceiving of the rules, I specifically decided that decaf would be against the spirit of the project. I settled on 4-oz of coffee because that was the minimum amount in an official Starbucks beverage, a short misto. Later I redefined the 4-oz to be sample for the purposes of getting it free, after I began to achieve recognition. On occasion I will try a new beverage, and if I am travelling a great distance to the next Starbucks (many hours), I may have an espresso, canned DoubleShot, cappuccino, or latte.

Some people are critical of the quality of Starbucks coffee. Have you ever compared their coffee with a cup from another store? If so, what did you think?

I do not think Starbucks compares unfavourably with any of the other chains, including Costa and Nero here in London. Their coffees would not motivate me to switch. I have had more enjoyable cups from some independent shops, and I particularly enjoyed the coffee brewed in a Clover machine (tried it in Victoria [British Columbia, Canada] back before Starbucks bought the company).

Could you name a couple of cities where you have been able to stand on one spot and see two or more Starbucks branches at once?

Houston, Vancouver, New York and Los Angeles.

Following your challenges with Ireland's public toilets, are you finding London's facilities more (or less) usable?

London's facilities are the same, but since I'm staying in a hostel here and showering every day, it is not such a big deal.

What’s the deal with the frequent ‘squirrel’ references in your travel log? Are you just noting every time you see a squirrel? Or is there some other significance?

It's a joke that you wouldn't get, because the Pixar film ‘Up’, which was released in the U.S. last week, will not be released in the UK until October. If you saw the trailer, you might get it, but it is a subtle joke.

Analysts have suggested that the Starbucks business model is 'all froth' (once they’ve sold the customer a cup of coffee and maybe an ambient music CD, they can't really squeeze any more money out of them); after the initial boom, Starbucks stores already started closing (even before the ‘global financial crisis’). So, as a fan that has seen more of Starbucks than most, do you think their star is starting to wane?

Based on the relatively few number of stores that closed between 1997 and July 2008 (when the implosion was announced), about 150, mostly due to natural causes I suspect (leases up, building remodellings, as well as slow business), I would disagree with the analysts. From the level of business I've seen at stores in big cities throughout the U.S., I think Starbucks would have continued to do just fine had it not opened so many stores, which had a few effects:

  • Cannibalization of business from stores too close to each other.
  • Stores opening in markets that just weren't strong enough, like smaller Oklahoma cities.
  • Decline in barista quality that I perceived in cities that were oversaturated (more stores = trouble hiring quality baristas).
  • Beyond that, I have no doubt that most Starbucks will continue to survive, because they still provide something that people want.

    Your travel log suggests that your visit to London has been a series of ordeals. Is it really that bad, or are you secretly enjoying yourself?

    That's not an either-or question.

    Yes, it has been that bad, but at the same time I have been enjoying myself, and I would not say it's a secret. Right up front, within the first few days of arrival I describe the sense of ease that comes over me after settling into Europe. I'm sure I've described more than a few times how much I love seeing beautiful European women all over the place. And if I actually manage to make it to see Chekhov's ‘The Cherry Orchard’ at the Old Vic Theatre, I'm sure I'll describe that in glowing terms too (unless it sucks).

    But the ordeals are real. It's just so much easier Starbucking in the U.S. (and even Canada) where I'm extremely familiar with getting around. Anybody who travels is naturally exposed to unfamiliarity and inconvenience, but because of the intensely goal-oriented nature of my Starbucking project, taking the wrong bus doesn't just mean I have a few hours less to chill out at the beach - it means I might not get to all the stores before I have to end my trip.

    Have you ever been sick on the tube?

    Sick how? Vomited - no. Allergies, yes. Headache, dizziness, discomfort, yes.

    Last Updated 05 June 2009