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Chain Reaction

One man's bottomless quest to visit every Starbucks on the planet

By Bill Donahue
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page W22

There is only one real Starbucks in Atlantic City. Store No. 7849 is just a few months old, but one recent evening -- at dusk, with the sky a purplish black -- the place seemed somehow hallowed. The streets all around it were quiet. The nearby buildings were empty and dark -- and there it was, the Starbucks on the corner, brightly lit up like a cafe in a painting by Edward Hopper, as the customers inside (there were just two of them) fidgeted away at their laptops.

John Winter Smith approached the front window at speed, and then he whirled his battered 1997 Honda Civic through a nearby parking lot and jumped out -- a rangy, unshaven guy in a baggy T-shirt and jeans striding over the sidewalk with brisk and somber intent, as though the theme song to "Mission Impossible" were playing in the background. This was no minor moment. Since 1997, the 32-year-old Houston-based computer programmer, who prefers to be called "Winter," has been on a singular quest. He aims to drink an espresso, or an 8-ounce black coffee, at every single Starbucks in the world.

Winter sips his java outside the Starbucks at 16th and K streets NW. (Photograph by D.A. Peterson)

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Unpaid, unsanctioned by Starbucks and without a political agenda, Winter has already visited more than 3,800 of the corporation's 4,081 (and counting) U.S. outlets, as well as 455 of its international shops. As Starbucks expands, opening, on average, 25 outlets a week, Winter is struggling to keep pace. He hopes that soon he can say he has visited 99 percent of the Starbucks outlets in the United States; he harbors a distant longing of hitting 100 percent -- even for one day. In pursuit of this standard, he has negotiated Washington at rush hour and stalked the bayous of Louisiana and the plains of Nebraska. On one particularly jittery 15-hour day in Portland, Ore., Winter (who seems hyper even without coffee) ingested caffeine at 28 Starbucks shops.

Winter took the concrete stairs outside the Atlantic City store three at a time and then lunged inside, into a different, more tranquil world -- into a cocoon of soft lights and coffee aromas. There were comfortable chairs in here, and fine arts photographs, and (the pièce de résistance) a couple of grand, stylish, stainless-steel garage doors giving way to an al fresco wood deck.

Here was a place one could do the New York Times crossword puzzle as the sultry voice of Lucinda Williams played softly on the stereo, a place to believe life is good.

There is an underlying myth at work at every Starbucks, be it in Reno or Wichita or Des Moines, and it holds that, yes, Nirvana exists -- that, yes, beneath the mad scramble of everyday life, there exists a blessed refuge where the coffee is always fresh, where everyone truly cares and where even the calloused and humble bean farmers can dream of buying their kids orthodontia.

Starbucks never broadcasts its hopeful vision on television. Rather, it establishes brand identity by living out its ideals, by spending $11.3 million last year on community-based projects -- "fair trade" coffee cooperatives in Mexico, for instance, and litter-collecting projects in San Francisco. The earth-tone brochures on the wall in Atlantic City said it all. "One company staying true to its values," proclaimed a pamphlet rich in earnest, handwritten-style slogans. "Create escape," read another, aimed at prospective employees. "Make a difference in someone's day."

Winter and I were in the middle of a four-day, 1,000-mile, 16-Starbucks marathon that would take us from Brooklyn to Atlantic City, back up north to New York City, south to Virginia Beach and then north again, finally, to Washington. I hoped that, along the way, there would be moments of revelation. Winter is, after all, an inveterate reader of philosophy, a University of Texas graduate and nationally ranked Scrabble player who knows his Descartes from his Hume, his Wittgenstein from his Plato.

As it turned out, Winter engaged the barista in a discussion about the cafe's garage doors.

"Those are really cool," he said, nodding vigorously, his voice nasally and slightly robotic.

"They're brand-new," the barista said. "We just opened."

"Wow," Winter said. "Cool."

Eventually, after Winter explained his project, the barista served us our coffee and, being helpful, noted that there was another new Starbucks 12 miles away, in Mays Landing, N.J. -- a Starbucks that was mysteriously not listed on Starbucks.com.

"It's not in my database," Winter said, panicked.

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