When is a macchiato not a macchiato?

Over at Thrillist, food journalist Nicole A. Taylor penned an article titled “How the Starbucks Macchiato Ruined My Indie Coffee Shop Experiences.” It’s a perspective I hadn’t entirely considered before.

The gist of the story is Taylor first encountered a macchiato at Starbucks. Now when going to indie cafes, she wonders why the drink they call a macchiato isn’t what she expects.

Here’s where my experience and hers overlap despite a significant difference. Yes, my first macchiato was at Starbucks, and yes I was also confused when ordering one elsewhere only to find it was a completely different drink. See at Starbucks what they call a “macchiato” is essentially a latte sweetened with caramel. But that’s not the traditional meaning of a “macchiato.”

My first confusion about what the word meant was at Peet’s, an American coffee chain that’s much smaller than Starbucks — though by no means an indie cafe. I was just a teenager at the time and didn’t understand why the Peet’s version of the macchiato was so much smaller and not as sweet as the drink of the same name at Starbucks.

In those ancient times before wifi, Google, and smartphones definitive answers to questions like “what is a macchiato” were not readily available.

The answer by the way is Starbucks has muddied the waters so to speak; if you want a traditional macchiato at Starbucks you have to specifically order an “espresso macchiato.”

But Taylor’s life experience is quite different from mine. She’s an African American woman from the South, now living somewhere on the East Coast. A typically pretentious indie coffee shop doesn’t just have cold customer service, when they don’t make a macchiato the way she’s used to it makes her question if she’s being discriminated against for either her race or southern accent.

Taylor’s reaction might seem odd at first, but as a white man from California I’ve never experienced discrimination on either of those two fronts. I haven’t lived in her shoes and who am I to judge the experiences of others anyway?

Although she eventually learned like many of us about the difference between a traditional macchiato vs. a Starbucks macchiato, her takeaway is that Starbucks has friendlier customer service than most indie cafes, which… is almost certainly true. Though I have to say, if only Starbucks had given their sugary, caramel beverage a unique name instead of re-branding the humble macchiato we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.

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