Why Starbucks Became An Amazing Third Place


The plane landed and my wife and I made our way to baggage claim. My best buddy, who is a coffee drinker, met us at the airport to take us home. We grabbed our bags and our eyes were struck with the sight of a brand new Starbucks, right there, in baggage claim. It looked more like a cigar club than a typical Starbucks. Being a coffee drinker, my buddy was immediately in line buying a Venti “something.” He bought me a strawberry smoothie (don’t judge) and we were on our way.

Holding my cup, I felt a prick underneath my palm. The thermal label with my name printed on it was wrinkled and had a pointy edge. This little pointy edge is just one of the reasons I hate the thermal labels Starbucks has begun using.

Fast Forward a Year and a Half

Near the hospital where our son, Isaac, was born in January of 2014, there is a new Starbucks. It has a more contemporary feel with a lot of metal and soft textures. To me it stands out from the other locations. I really like it. On this particular day there wasn’t a line so I made conversation with the barista as I placed my order. We chatted and as she picked up the cup which would soon be filled with my white chocolate mocha (don’t judge), she wrote my name on the outside with a Sharpie.

I said, “Oh, I love it when you guys use the Sharpies. Those thermal labels are just so… yuck.” She responded, “Yeah, but we don’t like using the Sharpies. It slows us down. It’s okay when we’re slow, but when we’re busy we like the labels.”

Service or Relationship?

Being as well connected in communication and marketing as I am, her comment swirled around in my mind. What would be more important to me? The personal touch of my name written by hand or getting my drink faster? I honestly don’t know. But it makes for an interesting thought.

Starbucks has built their entire business on becoming that “third place.” You spend your time at work and at home. Starbucks is the third place. Becoming a third place requires a great deal of personal connection. You facilitate that connection by creating an environment that allows others to simply be themselves. Same as they are at home and to the extent they are allowed to be at work. That’s what Cheers was all about. The idea that you could just go somewhere and be yourself, be known. Imagine Sam Malone slapping a sticker on every mug of beer he served up for Norm.

It might be easier for the baristas to place a sticker on the cup rather than write a name, but Starbucks did not become a staple in our lives based solely on speed. It is a regular part of our day because Starbucks allows each of us to be ourselves. We order our drinks exactly how we want them. We sit in our favorite places. Our names written out by hand give us a deeper sense of being known. A thermal label might as well be a number at a fast food restaurant.

Don’t Do What’s Easiest for You, Do What’s Best for Others

The takeaway here is not to forget what formed the relationships between you and those around you. Here’s one example: If you have scheduled your own appointments for years and now use an assistant, consider how that will feel to the person you’ve been scheduling with for a decade. You’ve built trust and relationship, but something as simple as who schedules the appointment can violate that connection.

I’m certain that my barista didn’t realize her words would make it all the way to my blog. But they did. I’m not upset with her response. Rather, I’m grateful because it has offered me insight into how I ought to treat others, even in the midst of any personal evolution I might experience.

2 replies
  1. sostephanie
    sostephanie says:

    Interesting post – a relationship getting a sharp poke in the hand just to save a few moments…hmm, definitely something to think about. Who have I inadvertently poked and stirred something up with? How can I stay personable and efficient when that to-do list is staring me down? All great stuff to keep in mind 🙂

    • Dave Shrein
      Dave Shrein says:

      I really love how you take the concept to a whole new level… turning it into a personal rather than organizational approach. Great, great challenge. Well said.

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