John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Forget "venti cafe latte." One London store would rather you ask for a "cup of really really milky coffee."
If you're a Starbucks regular, you know it's going to happen one day. Despite your insistence on ordering "large" or "small" beverages, the cheerfully quick-to-correct baristas are eventually going to wear you down into saying "tall," "grande" and "venti."
Why does it have to be this way, when coffee shops have survived for decades without making their customers sound like Italian tourists? One U.K. store decided that it doesn't, and in a snarky slap to Starbucks' ordering system, is offering a menu so basic it could've been spelled in letter blocks by a sleepy toddler:
Debenhams, a department store with 240 branches around the globe, now offers in its London location a variety of "plain English" drinks like "simple coffee – with or without milk." (That would be what Starbucks refers to as "drip.") A cappuccino at Debenhams is a “frothy coffee” and a cafe mocha is a “chocolate flavoured coffee.” Espresso is gone, replaced by a "shot of strong coffee" – a gross simplification that should give coffee snobs a coronary.
Hilariously, a cafe latte has become a "really really milky coffee."
Drink sizes are similarly minimalistic. There are only two options, a "cup" or a "mug." That distinction must be clearer in the U.K., because here in America those sound like the same thing.
The retailer altered its menu in late October after finding via survey that 70 percent of coffee drinkers have experienced "coffee confusion," a totally not-made-up affliction that will be in the next edition of the DSM. Explained John Baker, Debenhams' food-service director: "We’re trialling a redesign of our coffee menu in Oxford Street so shoppers spend less time playing coffee Cluedo and more time enjoying their favourite drink."
It's unclear right now if Debenhams has gone too far away from Starbucks. After all, lots of folks resent being forced to use unfamiliar words that smell of pretension, but even more might not cotton to sounding brain-damaged. The new menu has gotten support from at least one respected defender of linguistic clarity, the Manchester-area Plain English Campaign. Chrissie Maher, who since 1979 has led the Campaign's fight against "gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information," had this to say:
“Whether it is coffee, tea or hot chocolate, it needs to be in plain English so customers can make an informed choice. If they can read the menu clearly, they are more likely to try something new – and who knows – they may come back for more.”