Winning in Third Place

Michael Metzger

Starbucks coffee has repeatedly said they aren’t in the business of selling coffee. Instead, they are winning by coming in ‘Third Place.’ If people of Christian faith understood what is meant by ‘Third Place,’ they might rethink where they put some of their time and energy.

Several newspapers recently reported on Starbucks’ latest success — customers happily paying $35 for a pound of special coffee beans. Dubbed the Black Apron Exclusives, limited editions of various blends are soon to appear at select stores throughout the country every month. Demand currently exceeds supply for the flavors (that you will “cherish,” according to a Starbucks promotion). Don’t be shocked. Paying $35 for a ground of coffee beans is not unprecedented. Jamaican Blue Mountain goes for around $45 a pound. At the top of the scale, premium gourmet coffees (such as Kopi Luwak beans from Indonesia) sell for as high as $500 a pound. Starbucks is smart—they have staked out the middle ground between 7-11 and Blue Mountain coffee.

But they have staked out something more important—this setting called the ‘Third Place.’ And they are winning. Black Apron Exclusives are so “hot,” Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley recently went to Las Vegas to woo Starbucks Corporation for more stores and to be included in the top 500 to 1,000 stores that will receive the precious and rare beans (Baltimore is considered “Starbucks-challenged”). “It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” says James B. Twitchell, an advising expert and author of Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism. “It is not irrational; it just looks that way. What Starbucks sells, as even they gleefully admit, is not coffee, but the “Third Place.'”

OK… so where is this ‘Third Place?’ ‘Third Place’ is a phrase used by Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz who describes the workplace as the ‘First Place’ where we not only work but also build friendships and experience community. The ‘Second Place’ is our home and families. Starbucks lays claim to owning the ‘Third Place’ where “everybody knows your name.”

There are at least three lessons here for people of Christian faith. First, at this time in history, I’m not convinced that most churches can beat Starbucks in the race to win ‘Third Place.’ Good men (and women) can disagree with me, but Starbucks seems to better understand the art and aesthetics of conversation and community. That’s meant as more of an observation of the church than a criticism. The second lesson is that the church is already doing some good work in winning ‘Second Place’—the family. But the third lesson might be most important: what if the church tried to win ‘First Place?’ John Stott says the first setting to ‘work out’ a Christian calling is in the workplace. Rodney Stark says Christianity changed the world (in the first three centuries after Christ) because they engaged and influenced preexisting social networks (that included the workplace). However, Laura Nash (Believers in Business) showed convincingly that few evangelicals ever learn how faith can shape their work. Perhaps the church ought to put more time and resources in helping business professionals win ‘First Place.’


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