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Why I Hate That I Regret Not Going to Starbucks in Jakarta

When it sucks that they give you what you want.

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When I chose to go to the Bakoel Koffie cafe in Jakarta instead of the Starbucks right down the street I made a conscious decision to avoid the big multi-national, mono-culturizing chain that is rapidly taking over entire cities all over Asia. Starbuckses are going up across the street from Starbuckses here, and it is not uncommon to see multiples of them in a single glance down the street. Everywhere you go, there they are. But in the end I didn’t feel smug and righteous about my decision, as I assumed I would; I felt ripped off.

I ordered an Americano at Bakoel Koffie, an impressive cafe decked out in colonial decor in the heart of Jakarta, and began scanning the scene. The place was lively, full of smokers, students, and young couples on dates. As an afterthought I called over the counter and requested a little milk to be poured into my coffee. The girl behind the counter refused outright. I looked up at her in surprise.

“Americano is black, no milk,” she lectured me sternly.

“But they give me as much milk as I want in my Americano at Starbucks,” I replied, feeling a little silly for making the comparison, but for the previous three days I walked right past this cafe on my way to work at the Starbucks down the street.

While I didn’t know what it would hurt to add a little milk to my coffee I wasn’t going to kick and scream about it. I then glanced at my receipt. Something didn’t seem right. The menu said the coffee was 23,000 Rupiah, but the receipt said 28,000. Tax was added onto the total, which isn’t abnormal in Indonesia, but a mandatory service fee was also tacked on.

I questioned the girl about it. Her level of interest in my plea hardly produced a shrug.

“But the price on the menu is the one I pay at Starbucks. They never sneak in a service fee and they include the tax.”

Then my coffee arrived. It was in a diminutive sized cup. For the exact same price I could have gotten three times as much coffee at Starbucks.

As for the quality of the coffee? Mediocre, no better than at the dreaded chain.

My “but at Starbucks” comparisons were getting annoying at this point, but this wasn’t about me and one insignificant trip to a local coffee house rather than a multinational competitor, it was about a consumer experience which millions all over Asia are having daily which is shaping the very appearance of the region’s cities and impacting the culture. It was about how a single company has become a regular part of a huge portion of the world’s daily routine in a matter of just a few years.

What bothered me was that there is a reason for Starbucks’ success, and it isn’t just because of a lack of competition or because people are bedazzled by the logo of a big international brand. Starbucks, and few other chains like them, have figured out what it is that people really want.

People don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee, they go for a chair to sit down in, air conditioning, electrical outlets, toilets, and the comfort of an anonymous social space. Starbucks offers a place where people here can meet with their friends outside of the home, go on dates and not be spied on by their parents, sit alone away from the pressures of family and work, read books, or sit on their personal electronic devices for as long as they please. Actually buying something from the other side of the counter is just a ticket to enter.

Starbucks is successful because they give their customers what they want in exchange for future allegiance — even if the requests are ridiculous or seemingly uneconomical. So I can get as much frothy milk in my Americano as I want and I even once watched as some Chinese guy in a Starbucks in China ordered a latte without milk — and actually got it. Although they don’t necessarily advertise this fact, customers can invent their own drinks in Starbucks. If you tell that person on the other side of the counter to make you something they are bound by company policy to make it. There are no questions asked, they don’t disagree with you or put up an objection because they know that if they comply you will be back tomorrow, and this is what business is all about.

Have you ever seen an angry customer in Starbucks?

I hate to say it, but after the few moments that it took me to drink that crappy, teeny, overpriced Americano that the girl refused to add even a drop of milk to at the Bakeol Koffie cafe in Jakarta, I wish I’d just walked the three blocks down the street to Starbucks. The following day I did just that.

I hated the fact that I got what I wanted there — a comfortable seat, a table, an electrical outlet, a toilet, and a colossal drink made just how I wanted it. I hated the fact that the bastards made me happy. I hated that the next time when I’m in some random city looking for a cup of coffee and a place to work and I see a Starbucks on my right and a local cafe on my left that I will probably go where I know I can get what I want quickly, easily, and probably more cheaply. At the other cafe, who knows?

To chose an inferior alternative out of principle or pride is silly.

Local cafes could operate on the same principles as Starbucks but they seldom do. They would often rather grub pennies today rather than have a stream of business that could last for years. I’ve never understood this approach.

It’s perhaps a little contradictory when we consider that these mono-cultural, standardized chains like Starbucks actually find their success by being adaptable. Where else can you walk into a cafe and invent your own drink or get a latte without milk?

Starbucks takes our money because they’ve figured out who we are and what we want. When they give me that extra mug of milk or fill up my half finished cup of coffee or let me sit in there all day long using up an entire section of their cafe as an office they are allowing me to game the system . . . and they do so with a smile. They know the house always wins in the end. 


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Filed under: Food, Indonesia

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

7 comments… add one

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  • Martes December 11, 2015, 4:45 pm

    Very interesting and I totally get your point. I feel similar.
    One important thing is: although good service feels so natural and normal when experienced, I think it is quite a science to provide good service. Starbucks has the money to invest into research on that field and find out how exactly they provide this good feeling. And how to teach it to their employees.
    A local cafe just does not have these capacities and therefore it is quite hard for a local cafe to compete with starbucks… especially if the owner is not running the place itself, i think.

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    • VagabondJourney December 11, 2015, 10:33 pm

      That’s very true. They’ve figured us out and that’s why they’re taking over the world. Interesting take on local cafes. Another thing is that we often assume that local looking restaurants, cafes, and bars, etc…are mom and pop businesses when in actuality they are often run by larger companies or the local business elite, which are often no better to give your money to than a big, monocultural multinational. Another point is that Starbucks stores are often in newly developed areas or redeveloping areas of cities in many countries so they are part of a much broader stream of globalized, monocultural development.

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      • Raven June 3, 2023, 7:40 pm

        You can see when a business is run by “a real guy” or “blah blah blah industries”, who appear to be more likely to just own 5 McDonalds or 5 Paneras or 10 Dunkin Donuts anyway rather then their own shops. Then there are the ones that are like “NewCasualRestaurantWithOneLocation – Owned by McDonalds” – these are usually discloses with only minimal effort to find out. The ones where “it could be grandpa who owns this but it probably isn’t”. I think those are usually sit-down restaurants, not coffee shops.

        However, in regards to regular stores or fast food, I am going to avoid any that are clearly a single location “owned by a guy”, because they tend to be terrible. Fast food is disgusting in regards to for example how their cooking equipment looks, especially if “the guy” is from certain countries. A store they will usually literally try to talk to you solely because you walked into the store, complain or ask questions what attribute you’re looking for if you hmm uh you know actually browse the products. Often have fake, literally-retarded “coupons” like “$1 off when you spend $25”, full of exclamation points and “Great Deal! Don’t miss it!” type crap, and then don’t even honor the coupons anyway if it’s a sit-down restaurant. Have no selection and even literally lie to customers – that’s fine, all Starbucks does is put coffee in the fridge overnight and then add a flavor syrup to it, yes but IT’S LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO ORDER COLD BREW WITH TOFEENUT FROM STARBUCKS WITHOUT KNOWING THAT, and also you don’t have $15+ available solely to buy a container of syrup and also you probably don’t want the same syrup every single time and also you didn’t put any coffee in the fridge 2 days ago and also the price of making it that way is also extremely expensive in addition to the price of the syrup so that’s $40 even if you did have it at home or $3 from Starbucks and oh yeah the most obvious one YOU ARE NOT AT HOME RIGHT NOW. Literally every single human being who has ever ordered from Starbucks or any other code shop is NOT CURRENTLY AT THEIR HOUSE WHEN THEY ORDER IT. Of course that doesn’t mean that you should order it from Starbucks specifically, but when people complain about someone else ordering Starbucks, the only thing they usually say is “just make it at home”. Right you fucking dumbass, you forgot that I AM NOT CURRENTLY AT HOME. And if I am homeless then I am definitely not at home, too.

        But as for some “local business”, it is pretty much literally impossible to shop there now, unless you live in a house and the business is also literally one block or less from your house. Because that business has NO points at all, so you are literally always paying extra even if the price is the same. And even if they do have points, that doesn’t help you at all because you can not go there because they only have one location. If a restaurant has some food that won’t poison me, is 100% fully WAPF-compliment with zero outlying ingredients then maybe, for health purposes. But otherwise anything with a name I don’t recognize is probably going to be avoided, UNLESS it is a coffee shop AND I will sit there for 8 hours AND it has leather chairs AND I have seen it before and observed it to ensure that there is zero times when customers are kicked out (if it’s located in a city that enabled the possibility to kick customers out – obviously in most places you’d automatically know that customers are not kicked out because that’s not a thing that sane employees ever do anywhere). Then you go in and sit down for 20 minutes first to see what happens. Has an employee said at least one word to you for any reason other then telling you where the outlet or bathroom is? Is the Internet working? Did anyone have a mean look on their face? Etc. After that you can order. Or it’s a restaurant and it also has a specific reason such as a good price (in the case of RESTAURANTS ONLY, a few actually do have some “signature cheap item” that is better then menu price at normal restaurants), a weird flavor combination that sounds good, or a 100% WAPF-complaint item available to order. Other then these two, or a specialty place for billionaires which Amazon has gotten all the non-billionaire ones out of business (example: Bob’s Chess Shop, who’s main area 95% of the store, sells literally nothing but chess boards). These are the only three times there is a possibility to look at anything “owned by that guy”. If you are “a guy” and you want to own a business and get customers. Then how about actually selling your Coke for $1 like everyone else does. Not $4 for a single bottle of Coke. Or else simply do not sell Coke because you are morally decent – Oh wait, Whole Foods (and hopefully a few other places in your state if you’re lucky enough since nobody wants to give business to Whole Foods though!) already has that covered, and unlike your dirty “Savannah’s Medicine” completely useless fake “health store”, Whole Foods actually sells uh hmmm you know FOOD and MEDICINE. Not “only bottles of pills that say vitamin on the packages and absolutely nothing else in the store”. Not “here’s a grand total of 3 brands of sugar and one of them isn’t even organic and no we don’t have any produce here at all and there’s 10 other categories of food that we also don’t have and we have no more then 3 brands of any product in the entire store and by the way we might follow you around too”. So yes this is why everyone AVOIDS so-called “small businesses”. It doesn’t matter who owns it. Try having a reasonable price and actually having a clean store and actually selling “items” instead of having “20% of a store” try having an entire store. Your lack of customers is usually your own fault!

  • Frank Wulfers December 11, 2015, 10:10 pm

    This is the same for hotel chains and restaurants. You have had certain experience at a particular one before and you go because you expect and want the same. While it is good to explore the unknown and let it surprise you, sometimes you just want the predictable experience when you are traveling.

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    • VagabondJourney December 11, 2015, 10:30 pm

      For sure! Especially when you’ve been abroad for decades and just need a place to work.

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  • ReallyNotFeelinIt November 28, 2016, 5:36 pm

    I happily travel around the world, experiencing local cuisine with gusto, but when I’m tired and grumpy, I’ll pick the chain every time. Reliability matters.

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  • Raven June 3, 2023, 7:02 pm

    Firstly, that is illegal. You did not order a “service fee”, you were not informed of a “service fee”, and in addition, no “service” of any kind was provided. That’s a mandatory refund via cops if they refuse the refund without cops.

    Secondly, the Starbucks price is insane, for a cool or good drink, the local shop is going to be much cheaper. For a regular coffee who’s only flavor is “coffee”, the local shop will probably be the same price. UNLIKE Starbucks they will probably provide a nice conversation or some info about what the heck a “blueberry” flavor is in regards to the “sommelier wheel”. However, you were in a foreign country, so perhaps local shops do not do not there – which makes perfect sense in Asia, because in Asia there is no customer service in restaurants at all in general, besides decorum and as for decorum I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s only in Japan and not in other countries.

    UNLIKE Starbucks, the local shop might also actually have comfortable chairs. Starbucks is so unlikely to have them now. There was one extremely busy location, at no point in time, not for a single minute on any day, between 7am and midnight, would you ever see less then 30 customers sitting in the store – nearly all of whom actually pay for it wen they get a second drink, too. This location had 8 nice leather chairs and two couches, and a lot of “tiny” seats the one where the tables are along a bench yet always too close to the bench, yet, some customers sat there instead of instead of at the comfortable chairs when all were open, and no arguments about leather chairs ever occurred there. Although this was frequently used for business meetings and even interviews of someone about to be hired. It was also used by a lot of other people and for general purposes. This location also served wine for a long time, the wine was quite popular and yet again absolutely zero problems even while selling wine – nor would we expect there to be – there is also a 2am bar 2 blocks away at which I have literally never once seen police. Yet even so, this very important, very long-term location was suddenly closed – at the END of “businesses pretending covid”, at the time when any covid business lulls are now guaranteed to be reversed, and we know that the very first place to immediately regain 100% of it’s pre-covid business sales was this particular Starbucks. The arcade, the axe-throwing lounge, the movie theater, and the ice cream shop where people come specifically for rather then “coming in because we passed by”, the bridal shop, the Improv show, the movie theater, and the gourmet olive oil store which are all still there are certainly not the first place to regain business basically immediately. No. It’s this Starbucks. Which really hasn’t even seen a “below profit” level at any point in time anyway – even with no refills and immediate leaving, no refills because as I mentioned there is nowhere to sit nearby, you’d have to literally stand at the door the whole time in order to be within “outdoor refill distance” at this location. And yet even so, there somehow was at least 4 visible customers at all times, each and every time I walked past there or attempted to order something before seeing that the inside still wasn’t open yet.

    …But yet, this location is closed immediately before the time when they are guaranteed to have literally tens of thousands of customers every single day again. Why? Presumably it’s because they actually have chairs.

    In Asia I am sure that a coffee shop is mean to you and seals from you. Because that’s how the MAJORITY of businesses operate in Asia.

    In America, and Australia and in Europe etc. – even though there are some countries in Europe that probably do abuse customers by demanding that somehow you are “required” to eat or drink your food exactly the same way again as they personally do because they somehow don’t understand that tastebuds exist and they magically morph into people who have narcissistic personality disorder as soon as anyone attempts to eat or drink a certain type of food – but in general, a sane human who has money of some type available and is not using a coupon or redeeming stars etc., should be going to LITERALLY ANYWHERE besides Starbucks. Including McDonald’s if you are someone who somehow finds “Colombian” coffee to be acceptable and who is also only getting some form of plain coffee who’s only flavor is “coffee”. Why? Because McDonald’s, unlike Starbucks, ACTUALLY ALLOWS A PLACE TO SIT. Of course it is often dirty, and they will be using illegal “cleaning spray” etc. But that’s why you can go to some local shop, or to any other non-McD restaurant, or to Panera Bread which is now the most comfortable nationwide place in existence, and even some Dunkin Donuts’ locations have a place that isn’t decent to sit and electrical outlets and employees who won’t assault anyone. It’s just that you have to have experience with that particular location, but when you do find them it’s perfectly comfortable as far “sit at a plain table with no comfortable leather chairs and no fireplace” goes, it’s not “crowded in”, ugly, and forced to leave every other table empty or “maneuver a butt wiggle” just to get out of the seat like Starbucks does! And Dunkin Donuts’ even literally has better coffee – none of that’s disgusting “Pike” shit, 5 or so flavors that don’t have sugar added to ruin your iced coffee, and interesting seasonal latte flavors which Starbucks also no longer has. If I want “nice place to sit and drink only one single coffee”, then obviously I’ll order a coffee from Dunkin Donuts and take it to sit inside a Panera, if you could ever find a decent/acceptable Dunkin Donuts locations that is within one block of a normal Panera who has never personally abused me, which I have not ever found so far. However, if you want to refill your coffee, use your Starbucks coupon, or have a guaranteed acceptable employee behavior and guaranteed that a plain unflavored black iced coffee will be made correctly or have it guaranteed that most tables are clean (or guaranteed that the whole store is clean if you’re not in a city) or guaranteed that any assaults done via cleaning stay would only be done once or twice and probably won’t be yellow. Then that’s when you would go to a Starbucks.

    That place who literally closed the most profitable restaurant in three counties that literally hundreds of thousands of people or more go to for comfort or for “nice relax before the rest of my day” etc. as well as numerous personal friendships “we are both here on Tuesday night so we are really good friends but only on Tuesday nights” type of thing. “We have each others’ phone numbers but we only use it to check whether you are coming to Starbucks tonight but if you had any emergency while at Starbucks I’d help you just as quickly as your wife would”. Solely to avoid having a location open that has comfortable chairs, apparently.

    …So no, people obviously do not go to Starbucks “because of like a place with an entry fee”. Especially since there is also no entry fee. That place would be Panera, if Panera was a coffee shop instead of a place with mediocre codée and the worst lattés. Since it’s a restaurant and since 99% of customers still go there “because I want to eat lunch and have less additives”, Panera is not that place, even though it could be. But that place most DEFINITELY is not Starbucks, being literally the least-comfortable place to sit in existence that is also “a coffee shop”, and also less comfortable then most restaurants, and even less comfortable then McDonald’s – a place who is also notorious for making their restaurants a lot less comfortable and who was also never even comfortable in the first place – if you are considering just literally the sitting position and the number of minutes before the butt goes numb etc., to where Starbucks is literally less comfortable then a fucking McDonald’s if you use a literal definition of “comfort”, excluding things like dirty tables, annoying customers, annoying TV loops, or frequency of the necessity of forced evacuation due to yellow cleaning sprays.

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