A young woman in an apron hands a cup of coffee to another young woman.
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At the corner of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, a 200-year-old coffeehouse, Les Deux Magots, has become an essential tourist attraction for visitors to enjoy stunning views and exquisite espresso. The cafe’s aura is elegant, with dark green awnings and gold trim, and it was once frequented by groundbreaking philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Les Deux Magots perfectly encapsulates the distinct cafe culture found in both Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. In those geographic regions, one will rarely find a disposable coffee cup or hurried customers on their way to work. Rather, as they were in the time of Sartre and Beauvoir, cafes outside of America adopt a slower pace. At Les Deux Magots, visitors eschew to-go orders to enjoy casual conversation over carefully brewed coffee, a practice that produced some of the greatest works of art and philosophical thinking.

In America, coffeehouses look vastly different than they do elsewhere in the world. Rather than cigarettes and extended chats enjoyed over ceramic cups of espresso, a typical American coffee shop prioritizes efficiency. Starbucks is largely responsible for the advent of fast-paced American coffee culture. Starbucks offers more of a to-go retail experience than a traditional restaurant one. 

This is not to say that Starbucks is totally different from its European counterparts. If customers do opt to enjoy their drinks and snacks in-store, free Wi-Fi and table space encourages productivity. A demographic that proves especially vulnerable to the hyper-efficient Starbucks cafe model is college students. With 96 milligrams of caffeine per cup, coffee exceeds the stimulant content of energy drinks like Red Bull. Placing a cafe that provides productive study space and on-the-go caffeinated beverages on a college campus proves far more lucrative than sit-in coffee purveyors like Les Deux Magots.

Presently, coffee shops are ubiquitous on college campuses, with 26% of students studying in coffee shops at least once a week. However, Starbucks and imitator cafes capitalizing on its successful, fast-paced model face problems in delivering high-speed service at a low cost.

On college campuses such as the University of Michigan, coffee shops are often staffed by student workers. Doling out hundreds of cups of coffee a day to their fellow students under monolithic corporations that prioritize cost over worker well-being has devastating effects.

In April 2022, Starbucks fired 23-year-old Hannah Whitbeck from her position at the South Main Street Starbucks in Ann Arbor for clocking out of her shift while another employee was left working the floor. The cited infraction occurred on Feb. 27, and Whitbeck had “no prior issues” as an employee. Two months went by with no mention of the infraction until Whitbeck was terminated the week after she organized a union election hearing.

Whitbeck’s termination is just one example of the recent wave of Starbucks’ union-busting efforts, as over 100 stores voted to unionize under Workers United in the past seven months, and Starbucks has attempted to stem this tide. Union workers at Starbucks are now claiming that the coffee giant is using its provision of gender-affirming healthcare and abortion access as leverage to squash union efforts. 

The South Main Starbucks and other similar coffee shops depend heavily on a student workforce to operate. Besides revealing Starbucks’ anti-union motives, Whitbeck’s wrongful termination exposes the immense pressure placed on student baristas: that a small blemish on an otherwise perfect employee record could cost them their job. For some student workers at Ann Arbor coffee shops, working at the whims of corporate coffee giants leads to feeling overworked, underpaid and undervalued.

A barista at the Starbucks on State Street explained to me that she enjoys spending time with coworkers but struggles with balancing classwork and 6 a.m. opening shifts. Unlike jobs affiliated with the University, local coffee shops do not abide by Michigan’s academic calendar, making it more difficult for student workers to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

Not every barista experiences the challenges described above. I spoke with a barista at The Ann Arbor Roasting Company who detailed how he loves the technical training he received and found a positive community within the store. However, many other baristas, both inside and outside the University community, find that they are treated as cogs in a giant machine. As a campus community, and one that makes frequent use of these shops, we must ensure that baristas are treated fairly and humanely.

Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at averycr@umich.edu.