THE BLOG
03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Caution: The McBeverage You're About To Enjoy is Extremely Overpriced

I was ten years old when Rocky III hit theaters in the summer of 1982. At that age, seeing Rocky fight Mr. T was a big deal. Both Mr. T and I went on to have very good summers. Rocky III made Mr. T an international star. And, I returned from summer camp where I was voted most likely to be kicked in the groin by a horse.

These days, they're still wheeling Rocky out to make movies--coming soon: Rocky X: This Soup is Cold. I'm not all together sure what Mr. T is doing but I imagine it's something involving him saying the words "sucker" and "fool." More power to him. I'm a big fan.

As an adult, I still get a kick out of watching big-time fights. One match I'll be following with interest is the coffee war between Starbucks and McDonald's. It seems the golden arches wants a piece of the coffee cash cow from Seattle. Who can blame them?

Yes, I go to Starbucks. How can you avoid them? But, after a few lattes early in my Starbucks evolution, I'm completely done with $4 espresso drinks. Now, I order one thing: a coffee. You remember coffee, right? It's black, inexpensive, and comes in three sizes: small, medium, or large. When I order a coffee at Starbucks, I feel as if I should apologize for being such a wet blanket. Plain old coffee is so 1995. If it isn't blasted with steam, mixed with syrup, or blended with ice--apparently it's just no fun. Straight coffee is to Starbucks what a single hamburger is to McDonald's: a jumping off point, a trip down memory lane, an item kept on the menu as an homage to their past.

Just getting a small coffee at Starbucks is an act of bravery and public protest. The word "small" doesn't even exist at Starbucks. So, when you ask for a "small coffee" as I often do, your request is typically met with a stunned look of disbelief, as if you'd asked for permission to pee in the tip jar. "Small coffee?" Is this guy a Communist? Should we call security?

Like so many others, I have no love for Starbucks or McDonald's. Both wildly successful businesses represent the corporatization of our culture. It pains me to think that with 14,000 McDonald's and 10,000 Starbucks nationwide, neither chain is done growing. How much is enough? These thousands of McDonald's and Starbucks outposts are merely a portion of larger global retail strategies both companies have planned over the next decade. Still, I'm pro business. I don't begrudge them their success. However, it's sort of embarrassing and depressing to me, the ubiquitous nature of these two beasts. It makes me miss the way we were--even if I'm not exactly sure what it is that I miss. I just know we'd be a better place with fewer of them.

So, now we hear that McDonald's is hiring "baristas" and reserving a spot at the counter for espresso machines etc...the full coffee experience. McDonald's says they aren't necessarily going after Starbucks loyalists as much as they are trying to get their own customers to expand their tastes a bit and, in the process, fork over an extra few bucks for an espresso drink. (Nothing says delicious like the combination of an egg McMuffin and a soy latte with an extra espresso shot.) Still, something just doesn't sit right with the whole plan.

People go to Starbucks, or any other coffee bar, with a certain set of expectations. At the top of the list is that the customer's bizarre espresso lexicon, nearly as snooty and ridiculous as ordering in Latin, will be understood, anticipated, and (if nothing else) not laughed at by a zit-faced high school kid. I just can't see the average McDonald's employee keeping a straight face when someone orders a non-fat caramel macchiato, especially when the drink itself costs just under what the staffer is paid for an hour's work. The customer will likely be ridiculed or stabbed in the neck with a fork.

All the coffee bars have developed an unspoken understanding with their typically well-off customers. The coffee bar / patron agreement boils down to this: you pay through the nose for a sissy drink masquerading as "coffee" and we'll promise not to laugh in your face. We'll even take you seriously. In addition, we will play quasi-hipster music and feed you scones to round out your experience. Finally, we will provide your increasingly wide asses with ample, comfortable seating. You can even plug in your lap top and download music using our Wi-Fi hot spots. (That will be $12.50.)

Will McDonald's make good coffee? Many say they already do. Will they be able to make a quality product and sell it for less than Starbucks et al? I'm sure they can. But in the end, I'm totally unconvinced that the majority of folks who are after an espresso drink want to pay less for it at the expense of their very ritualized coffee experience. Part of what that big bill at Starbucks gets you is the ambiance and comfort of being among simpatico folks, those also willing to pay so much for so little..... Come to think of it, if that's what McDonald's is trying to do, they'll fit in quite nicely.

Maybe these two corporations deserve each other? Why doesn't one of them just buy the other? That way, while biting her tongue, the Mc-barista can ask the hipster if he'd like to super-size his Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha. Either way, odds are, he'd like fries with that too.

We deserve what we get.