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Back Buzz - September 21, 2005

pumping heart Starbucks Coffee, 295 Western Bank, Broomhill, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

Yes, yes, I know...it's that 9-letter word. And right now you're thinking, "what the f*** is wrong with the woman? Is she going to start writing rave reviews about the coffee at various Holiday Inns around the world? Or weighing the merits of the coffee whitener used at McDonald's vs. that used at Burger King?" I may as well just pack in my credibility and go get a job serving coffee and donuts at Disneyworld. Or better still, does anybody happen to have a spare length of rope? Or perhaps directions to a short pier?

But seriously, yes, I am in fact going to write this review. After all, it's a free country, and you can take it or leave it. So here goes:

This brand new addition to the Starbucks global (better make that galactic) empire is located across the street from Weston Park and the Mappin Gallery (currently under refurbishment) and next to the Children's Hospital. On the recent Saturday afternoon when I stopped in mobs of people were everywhere, consisting mainly of families enjoying the weekend and students arriving for the new term. It was one of the first spectacular days of autumn, a sudden cold, fresh, crisp snap just having arrived in Sheffield the previous day.

The setting of this particular Starbucks is in an old Yorkshire stone house, with a mildly hi-tech interior offset by warm floors, dark red walls, and a mixture of furniture including traditional cafe and dining tables. I opted for a seat in a "living room" corner so I could contemplate life and ponder just why exactly I was here -- at a Starbucks, that is. I'll admit that in the eight years I've been writing this column I have never reviewed a Starbucks. And when I launched the website in Seattle -- the centre of the espresso universe -- I vowed at that time that I would never review a Starbucks.

But this isn't Seattle and it's not California. It's not even London -- it's Sheffield. The North. So why shouldn't I see what a Yorkshire Starbucks is like? Sounded like fun to me...

Sadly, if you want a decent espresso drink, I can't recommend this place less. The menu is basically identical to the last couple of Starbucks (Starbuckses?) I visited, aside from the prices being in pounds instead of dollars. And included on this identical menu is that horrid Starbucks creation, the "caramel macchiato". This overpriced and syrupy sweet dessert of a drink was presented to me in an Orange County coffeehouse after I ordered a double macchiato. (You can read about that experience here.) And there are three sizes available for most coffee drinks, the smallest being "large". Not wanting to repeat my previous fruitless attempt to order an "espresso macchiato" I ordered a "tall" (meaning small) cappuccino "with an extra shot of espresso" (meaning double short cappuccino). My "cappuccino" (meaning a cup of hot milk) was served in a Starbucks "cup" (meaning giant mug). As I sat in my little "living room" I attempted to wade my way through this huge vat of hot coffee-tinged milk, wondering if I should have foregone the milk and ordered a simple "espresso" (meaning, hopefully, espresso). But I persevered, thinking, well, I won't have to worry about getting hungry until later on tonight, if ever again, and hopefully all that hypnotic lactose won't entirely contradict the effects of the caffeine.

One thing I will say for this Starbucks is that the background music is good -- at least it was on this particular day. An excellent selection of jazz, blues, and old R&B classics mingled with the conversational cacophony, making the cafe seem busier and more crowded than it was. Although the place is non-smoking, there is a front garden with inviting tables where one can sit and have a fag or just enjoy the fresh air while watching the museum, park, university, and hospital crowds stroll by. I suppose Starbucks couldn't have picked a better location, providing a caffeine and scone haven for all the sleep-deprived students, chatty art lovers, picnicking families, and overworked hospital staff. I just hope the baristas eventually learn how to make a strong, foamy drink. And I do wish they'd buy some proper cappuccino cups...

Speaking of cups, sizes, and drinks that have nothing to do with reality reminds me of a couple of recent e-mail exchanges with my Bay Area friend, starting with the subject of ambiguity:

I just received this e-mail. Are they talking about the sport or the soft drink? Or perhaps something else?

Date: Tuesday 23 August 2005
Subject: (no subject)

Hi,
I was wandering if you could tell me how much squash would be for tommorow?
Thanks

I think it must be some kind of code - or at least professional jargon. Are these commodities traders seeking an inside tip on short-term squash futures? And is "tommorow" an accepted variant spelling? Maybe their intent was to send a nice assortment of crooknecks to somebody named Tom Morow (presumably famous - wasn't he a news anchor? Or perhaps even a squash tournament champion), who is recuperating in the hospital from his injuries.

Maybe your cryptic greengrocer could shed some light on the request.

Perhaps it's a misspelling of "to marrow" (in England a marrow is a large zucchini-like squash.) And just what are these people wandering among, anyway? The greengrocer's aisles? The pumpkin patch?

Perhaps they're foreign tourists asking for directions...

And the second e-mail exchange is on the concept of well-endowed cats:

After recently telling you about the chewing gum popular with Japanese women which reportedly increases their breast size, I've just read about a mobile phone ring tone which "positively brainwashes" the body into increasing one's breast size. This, again, has been developed and is popular in Japan.

When I think of Japanese popular culture I always end up thinking about Hello Kitty. So why does Hello Kitty have such flat breasts?

Look out, Hello Kitty! On a public phone at Caffe Strada, where I stopped for a cappuccino today, I saw her nemesis!

The web site (vanderkitten.com) seems to indicate a small, Oakland-based company offering a small line of clothes and accessories for "women who kickass!" I haven't seen a full-body rendition of "Ophelia VanderKitten," but judging by the young women wearing her clothes, I bet she has big breasts.

What is it about the image of "kitten" that makes some people think of big breasts? I've never seen a cat with large mammaries. And why do they call it a wolf whistle? I didn't know wolves could whistle.