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March 10th, 2004 KELLY CLARKE | Bite Club
 

Starbonics

     
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Starbonics
The Bite Club doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the bizarre logic of corporate conglomerates. But Starbucks Coffee's new "Customization Tumbler," which comes with a packet of cartoon decals and a 20-page "Make It Your Drink" pocket guide to ordering Starbucks beverages, had us spitting lemon pound-cake crumbs across the floor.

According to the company's promo materials, "With more than 19,000 beverage combinations, ordering your perfect drink can seem a bit daunting."

Now, skydiving is daunting. Sweetbreads can be daunting. Starbucks? Not daunting. Nevertheless, local manager Peter Emerson explains the need for the tumbler--which made its appearance in Portland Starbucks stores last month--as if it were a security blanket.

"If somebody visits my store everyday, I know what they drink," says Emerson, who heads the chain's Northwest 21st Avenue outlet. "But what happens if they visit a different Starbucks? They might not know how to ask for their favorite drink."

Starbucks isn't the only chain treating customers as marketing islands, but still, the very idea of the customization tumbler makes us uncomfortable. Portlanders may not visit their local Starbucks expressly for their barista's counter-side manner, but this marketing ploy aims to help us stop talking to each other altogether.

So we decided to conduct a little market research of our own. Perhaps our barista--or "customologist"--would exclaim over our neat placement of stickers and our preference for both whipped cream and caramel syrup, leading to a real live connection.

Imagine our surprise when we plopped down our customized cup, festooned with the appropriate labels for an extra-hot caramel latte, and then were met with blank stares from the other side of the Starbucks counter.

The barista looked at the cup, looked at us and asked: "What did you want to drink?" We pointed to the cup. A second barista squinted at the decals and asked: "Do you want caramel syrup or caramel topping?" Daunted, we gave up and ordered the old-fashioned way. We never did get the whipped cream our latte iconography requested.

Apparently, Portland has yet to embrace the customized tumbler. But still, just what does it signify when a major corporation resorts to hieroglyphics in order to "customize" its menu? The Bite is all for expressing individuality. But it seems that if we come to rely on "Starbonics" in place of face-to-face communication, we're passing the buck on what makes coffeehouses--and our baristas--worth patronizing.

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Cafe Azul (112 NW 9th Ave.) may have said adios, but the goddess of hospitality is moving into the Pearl District spot. Eleni Touhouliotis, the owner/chef of Sellwood's Eleni's Estiatorio, and husband George are planning on opening a second restaurant featuring Touhouliotis' lush Cretan fare. Name? Eleni's Philoxenia--that's Greek for "hospitality." Although Eleni's sister location will not, officially, become a reality until the pair signs the lease today, George (owner of the much-missed rock fixture Satyricon) says they're planning an early-May opening for Philoxenia. "The Sellwood area is really nice," Touhouliotis says. "But downtown has always had a certain magic to it."


The Starbucks 16-ounce customization tumbler ($9.95) is available at Starbucks outlets. Customers who use their tumbler, or any reusable mug, receive a 10-cent discount on their beverage.
 
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