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Why Don’t We Drink Out of Mugs at Starbucks?

This holiday season, the Internet was alight with debates about Starbucks’ new paper cup design. The choice of a simple, red cup, void of any holiday icons, was charged with being an attack on Christmas itself—an expression of neutral, secular capitalism. But amidst all the scandal over the disposable cups, an entirely different breed of cup rests unrecognized: the good old fashioned, washable, reusable mug (the one most people have no idea Starbucks even offers).

The Cleveland Circle Starbucks—as well as every Starbucks nationwide—has ceramic mugs, though unlike the paper cups stacked tall against the register, the mugs are typically few and far between; five or six may be overturned on the espresso machine, or closed away in a cabinet.

Taking a look around, it’s also rare to see anyone cradling a sturdy, glass mug in any given Starbucks, though unlike its competitor Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks does boast a vibrant social scene, whether that be people converting small tables into makeshift cubicles, or friends connecting for coffee and a conversation.

What, then, can explain why “to-stay” customers don’t drink out of cups that reflect that choice?

“Honestly I always forget that they have mugs,” says Alex Hill, MCAS ’18. “I vaguely remember someone in front of me in line asking if they could have a mug once, but I literally never remember that they’re even there.”

Hill has never been asked at the register if she wants her drink in a mug. Unlike at many smaller cafes, at Starbucks, baristas never pose the question, “Do you want that for here or to-go?”

A barista at the Cleveland Circle Starbucks explains, “Certain things are default to the recipes. If you order a venti caramel Frappuccino, we won’t ask if you want four pumps of caramel,” he says. “Like that, to-go is considered the default in our recipes.”

Like asking for soymilk or an extra shot of espresso, requesting a ceramic mug is seen as a personalization rather than a necessary choice between two options, such as being asked paper or plastic at the grocery store. Though ceramic mugs and paper grocery bags are the less wasteful choice, when customers are automatically given the non-reusable selection, they aren’t prone to request otherwise.

“It's not in the policy or rules to ask ‘for here or to-go,’ and it's definitely funny when people say ‘to-go’ since that's assumed,” explains Meg Tazelaar, another Starbucks employee. She attributes this assumption to the fact that “so many people come through, and basically everyone wants to-go.” The sheer volume of patrons that Starbucks cafes serve and the limited table space mean most people will take their drinks elsewhere.

Starbucks has made an effort to combat the wastefulness of to-go cup usage by offering its customers a ten cent discount on drinks if they bring their own travel mugs, accommodating the desire to take drinks on the move in a more sustainable fashion. “We had a regular customer who brought her own mug every day,” says Tazelaar. “That's pretty common.” Starbucks also sells a cornucopia of colorful glass and metal travel mugs in the store with the hope that regular customers will use those mugs in lieu of disposable cups.

As for the few and the proud regulars who consume their coffee in-house, the Cleveland Circle barista says, “We have a few people who come in every day and do get their drinks in mugs, and we try to encourage people who work here to keep theirs to stay. Some people are more proactive about it than others.”

He believes of all Starbucks, the Cleveland Circle location is a prime place for mug usage because during the school year it’s heavily frequented by Boston College students who stay for hours on end, typing out papers in a caffeinated frenzy. “This store is half library, half Starbucks,” he says.

Still, despite knowing about the ceramic mugs, Hill—who often comes to this very Starbucks to do schoolwork—says she goes for the paper cup: “Generally if I’m there working on things, I can’t trust myself not to spill it on all my stuff,” she says.

That little green mermaid—the starlet of the disposable cups—can wear her crown with confidence because at Starbucks, paper still reigns supreme.


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