Please note: This article was first published on The Vegan Tourist and last updated March 26, 2012.
It’s time to review a non-vegan restaurant/café, namely the Starbucks Coffee Company. I primarily want to promote vegetarian businesses on this website, but it’s not always possible to find a vegetarian restaurant or café, so compromises are necessary.
I find that Starbucks is actually a good example to show traditional (read: non-vegetarian) restaurants how they’re excluding vegans – probably unintentionally – and how easy it would be to change their business models to cater to us as well. It’s all about missed business opportunities, really. Vegans have money, too, and we want to spend it (but can’t).
During the last year, I visited Starbucks branches in Austria, Great Britain, and the United States of America, so this review is based on my experiences in those three countries.
Here are a few things I like about Starbucks: I can get soy milk with my coffee and smoking is not permitted in their cafés. There’s free WiFi, and there are wall sockets where you can plug in your laptop. Some branches (e.g. in London, UK) even have big communal desks. I recently went on a working vacation to London and got most of my writing done at those desks. I also love their big, comfy chairs. I’ve spent countless hours reading newspapers and books in those chairs.
However, there are several reasons why I’m not a more frequent customer:
I love that Starbucks offers soy milk as a choice for my coffee, but as far as I know the soy milk isn’t organic. As a vegan, this isn’t my first priority, but it matters. In Austria, where there’s a strong anti-GMO movement, I’m pretty sure that the soy milk is at least GMO-free. In the UK and in the US that’s probably not the case. Who wants to eat or drink genetically modified food? Not me. Yes, organic soy milk is more expensive; and no, I don’t care. I still want it and would be willing to pay a premium price for it.
Starbucks offers almost no food for vegans. That’s true for Austria, Great Britain, and the United States of America.
When I asked a staff member at a Starbucks branch in Manhattan (on Broadway and 103rd street), I lucked out. The barista was a vegan herself, and she told me that the oatmeal and two kinds of bagels (plain and multigrain) were vegan. I could also buy a banana or potato chips. Not a great choice, but I was grateful to the barista, as I felt that I could at least trust the information she was giving me. Starbucks doesn’t provide information about vegan products on their in-store menus, so there’s no way to know if something is vegan or not. You have to check the company’s website (which is annoying). Labeling all vegan products as such on their in-store menus would be a big improvement.
I purchased a plain bagel and a cup of coffee with soy milk. My total came to $2.91 including tax. I could have – and would have – spent a lot more money, if only there had been more vegan food options.
When I stopped by another branch a few days later (somewhere in mid-town Manhattan), I decided to check if the barista at this branch knew as much as the vegan staff member at the other branch. I asked her which foods at Starbucks were vegan. She gave me a puzzled look and then answered – rather hesitantly – “the banana?” (Yes, the answer was in form of a question.) I bought a cup of coffee ($1.75 plus tax) and left – I bought my food elsewhere. Again, this was a missed business opportunity for Starbucks.
Last December, I spent a week in London, England. I usually started my day at the Starbucks branch at 425 Oxford Street, as they open early (I think at 6:30 AM). That’s a big plus. I was able to get my first cup of coffee there, but alas, no breakfast. My only options were fruit and potato crisps. I can’t stomach either this early in the morning. I usually spent a couple of hours at this branch, drinking my £1.50 cup of coffee, then left to buy breakfast elsewhere. Just like in the USA, Starbucks UK doesn’t really seem to want my “vegan” money.
When I asked one of their staff members for vegan options, I was offered a cheese plate. (Seriously. A cheese plate.)
(Note to Starbucks: Please give your baristas a crash course in vegan nutrition and tell them that bananas are indeed vegan, but cheese is not. Thank you very much, it’s appreciated.)
At a different branch (where I stopped by at around noon), I was offered the Falafel Mezze bistro box. It says on the company’s website that this box can be veganised by removing the tzatziki (and throwing it away), and that’s exactly what the barista offered to do. This only shows that the company does not understand vegans. Throwing out animal-based food is not an option, it’s deplorable. If I bought this box, I would support the exploitation of animals, and that’s a big no-no for vegans.
Austria is worst. I went to one of the company’s Viennese branches recently, in Neubaugasse, and there was nothing to eat for vegans, not even fruit. (Maybe another ravenous vegan had bought all the fruit due to a lack of other options…?) I was so frustrated, I left without purchasing anything. On the Austrian Starbucks website, the company doesn’t even provide nutritional information about the food and drinks they sell.
So there you have it: Starbucks is a great place to buy a cup of coffee and to hang out at for a few hours, but if you’re a vegan and hungry, forget it.
By not offering vegans any food choices, the company misses out on an ever-growing segment of consumers and additional profits. I don’t think they do it on purpose. They are probably not even aware that they are excluding vegans. My guess would be that there aren’t any vegans among the top staff members at the company, which would explain the lack of sensibility about this subject and the lack of knowledge about what it means to be vegan. It all comes down to lack of awareness, which translates into missed business opportunities and missed profits for the company.
It’s sad really, because I actually quite like Starbucks. I wish they’d do a better job at taking my money.