Around the world for a cup of java

Local man wants to visit all stores in Starbucks chain

April 27, 2005|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN FOOD EDITOR

John Winter Smith is nothing if not an optimist. For eight years, he has chased a goal that he admits he may never achieve: to visit every Starbucks Coffee Co. store in the world.

The Silver Spring resident has bought coffee at more than 4,500 of the chain's outlets in North America and 213 overseas. He recently added stores in Ocean City, Waldorf and Accokeek to his tally. Yet he still has a long way to go.

How many more stores? Maybe 100 or 200 in North America, hundreds more overseas. "I think I'm slipping a little," says Smith, 33, who recently moved to Maryland and works as a computer programmer for an Elkridge manufacturing company.

The popular Seattle-based coffee chain owns 4,525 stores in North America and 1,018 abroad, according to a company spokeswoman. In the coming year, Starbucks expects to open 1,500 stores worldwide -- an average of four stores a day.

Smith, a native of Houston, says his quest began as a lark, spurred by a conversation with a friend in a Starbucks in his hometown in 1997. "The idea randomly popped into my head," he says.

At first, he tried to visit any store with a Starbucks sign, but he found a mind-numbing sameness to the grocery-store outlets and airport kiosks that are licensed, but not owned, by Starbucks. So he tweaked the rules for his quest and decided to visit only those stores that are company-owned.

And for a visit to count, he must order a small cup of coffee at the store.

It's a pursuit that he likens to collecting. Some people assemble baseball cards, coins or hubcaps; he collects Starbucks visits -- and occasionally keeps the coffee cups, which he turns into sculptures.

"If I could sum it up in one word, it is the adventure," he says. "The road trip is iconic America."

And while the unusual hobby fulfills his lifelong desire to stand apart from the crowd, it also meshes well with his other passion: tournament Scrabble.

So far he hasn't made headlines for his Scrabble playing, but he has won a certain amount of acclaim for his Starbucks endeavor. He's been invited to lecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara and appear at Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia. He's been on the CBS Early Show, National Public Radio and CNN Headline News. An amateur filmmaker is making a documentary about Smith's odyssey.

"It struck me that this guy is doing something so bizarre it would be a great subject for a documentary," says Bill Tangeman, a lawyer from Kearney, Neb., who has been filming Smith for the last several months. "I had always wanted to do a documentary," says Tangeman, a former broadcast journalist. "But I had never found a subject worthy of the effort."

Taking temporary computer-programming jobs, Smith travels the country in a 1997 Honda Civic, attending two or three Scrabble tournaments a month and visiting Starbucks stores along the way. He has put more than 70,000 miles on his car in the past year, and this spring spent 11 days traveling through the South, sleeping in his car.

"In the overall sense, I don't get tired of it. The whole process is very enjoyable," he says. "I've learned to push my boundaries and limits farther than I thought I could."

Although he confesses that many of the suburban Starbucks are a blur in his memory, a few stand out, like one in a round pink building in Wayne, Pa., and the store in a Tokyo amusement park.

And even when he is not visiting new Starbucks, he tends to hang out in familiar ones, preferring to work on his laptop in the coffee shop.

"I've always liked the hustle and bustle," he says.

This year, he hopes to travel to California where about half of the Starbucks stores he hasn't visited are located. And a store in Silver Spring will be opening soon that he'll have to visit.

But Smith doesn't know if he'll ever catch up to the sprawling coffee company.

"I have no timetable and no plan to stop," he says.

Despite his persistence, it seems unlikely Smith will become a Starbucks mascot the way Jared Fogle has been adopted by the Subway sandwich chain.

Starbucks spokeswoman Lara Wyss says Smith "demonstrates a great enthusiasm for the Starbucks experience and it is flattering to learn about his passion for Starbucks coffee."

Actually, Smith makes it clear he isn't interested in shilling for the company. His opinion of the coffee: "It's very consistent," he says. "I've gotten used to it."

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