Starbucks coffee is everywhere. It was in my hometown growing up, and the area where I went to high school. It was a block away from my college campus, and a short drive from my first office after graduation. It was in the city where I studied abroad, and almost every airport I’ve ever flown through.
Starbucks’ omnipresence has made it somewhat of a paradox: It’s your local coffee shop that you can bring with you anywhere in the world. And for people who travel with their laptops in tow, it’s also become something of a second office, lending itself to remote work over a steaming cup of Joe (or latté, or frappuccino).
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But sometimes, Starbucks can feel… too something. Too corporate, too generic? Every Starbucks looks like every other Starbucks. That’s part of the charm, but it also means that your morning coffee routine lacks everything that could ever make it special.
Introducing Starbucks Reserve
Perhaps that’s why Starbucks has started a line of elite coffees and opened boutique roasteries. With locations in Seattle, Shanghai, Milan, and New York, and with two more storefronts in Tokyo and Chicago coming soon, Starbucks is expanding its luxury branding across the globe (Reserve bars and Starbucks shops that feature Reserve coffees are also around).
In other words: Something special.
If you live in one of the cities where Starbucks Reserve has already made an appearance, you may have seen Instagram posts from friends who have decided to spend a day working at one of the trendy hubs. And on the surface, that makes sense — we go to regular Starbucks shops to check our email or write, so why wouldn’t we do the same at an upgraded version?
But then, like with any destination, there’s always the concern that uniqueness and buzz will mean crowds and noise. Any place with hype is unlikely to be conducive to work. In fact, that’s part of what makes a regular Starbucks so perfect — its absolute ubiquitousness means there’s no fanfare or enthusiasm, and if one location is too crowded, there’ll be another one a few streets away.
As I heard more and more about the Starbucks Reserve roastery that arrived in Manhattan’s culture-heavy Chelsea neighborhood this winter, I decided to check it out for myself. Should this be the new hot spot for New Yorkers who need a day away from the office? Or is it too overwhelming?
Much like some of New York’s major food icons (Eataly, Chelsea Market), Starbucks Reserve’s New York base can feel formidable to take on. Its three stories include pastry, coffee, takeaway bean and cocktail bars, all ornate and lush.
Even from the outside, the Reserve roastery intimidates. With two heavy wooden doors, the design seems significant and weighty, almost like entering another land. On the inside, the New York roastery is all wood and copper. It feels like a sequel to “Oz the Great and Powerful,” but where coffee plays the Wizard instead of James Franco.
If you think your daily Starbucks order is expensive, Reserve’s offerings may make you gawk. From a hazelnut bianco latté to a sparkling citrus espresso, the menu is decadent, which means it won’t be cheap. Be ready for one drink and a pastry to run you more than $10.
After you order, the cashier may caution you to search out a seat before your food and beverage are ready. Mine did. I found a small wooden table and chair on the space’s lower level, in a corner, and waited for a text message telling me my food was prepared. When my phone buzzed, I walked up to the counter and tracked down a barista carrying my order on a slim, sleek, teeny-tiny tray.
I returned to my seat (which was more of a log) and nibbled on my $10 muffin and hot chocolate. Then, it was time to start working.
If you live in New York, the last place you want to be is surrounded by tourists. Luckily, there are a lot of places out-of-towners don’t go. But Starbucks Reserve is one of the places they do.
At the bar beside my table, entire groups of people introduced themselves. “Where are you from?” they would ask. None of them said the city. I overheard one woman say she traveled all the way from her home state for this — for a coffee (or whatever fancy choice she plucked from the menu) at a Starbucks Reserve roastery. I’m assuming she was kidding, though who knows?
If there is anything that’s counterproductive to working, it’s being surrounded by people who are having loud conversations, flocking to a destination for social hour (even at 11 a.m.). And that’s the environment at the New York location.
Your friends may have posted filtered photos sitting inside the roastery, focused on their laptops. Solely based on my experience, their grams are lying to you. The loud music, the chit chat, the constant flow of tourists taking selfies — none of it makes you want to work. I spent hours there, and I barely got through about 45 minutes worth of stuff.
If you want a cup of premium coffee with a colleague and work in Chelsea, the roastery may be a good 30-minute stop. But it’s not a place to work long-term — it doesn’t even appear to be designed for that. From my corner, I saw no outlets to charge a laptop. My wooden seat was hard and stiff; there was nothing to sink into, and any comfortable seating was already taken when I arrived in the morning.
Perhaps all of this was intentional — Reserve is not your classic Starbucks. It’s an experience. And it doesn’t have to go well with the drudgery of everyday life.
Your local Starbucks may be better
The Reserve roastery was so crowded that a man asked to share my table. He settled into another wooden chair and started plugging away — a kindred spirit, I thought. Soon, he was complaining. It was too loud. He wouldn’t be able to hear his business call in 15 minutes. The seats were uncomfortable, and there were no outlets. He, a perfect stranger, shared my thoughts completely. We were here to work, and this place wasn’t right for us.
But it was right for the constant flood of people coming in for a photo, or for those who crowded around the coffee bar to speak with friends or strangers. It was right for the groups of women who sat around chatting as one of them sipped a drink. It was right for the people who saw Reserve as an attraction, not a coffee shop.
For those of us who don’t care much for becoming Instagram influencers, but who do want to get work done, a Reserve space may not be our best environment. Which is okay, because just across the street from the New York roastery is an ordinary Starbucks — plain, boring and (presumably) filled with comfy seats and outlets. Luxurious doesn’t always mean ideal, and in this case, the familiar and safe may actually play out better than the new and special.
So sure, if there’s a Starbucks Reserve outpost in your town, maybe hit it up for a drink. But don’t expect the perfect serenity of being somewhere that’s nothing special. That kind of feeling is reserved for the average Starbucks on your street corner.
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