Speaking about Starbucking: Winter’s White Whale

Visiting every Starbucks in the world.

Aidan Pollock: How are you?

Winter: Oh I’m doing great. I’m all sweaty because I, uh, walked from the airport to the Starbucks for the first time. In my six trips to Hawaii, this is the first time I’ve walked to the Starbucks.

My conversation with Winter was punctuated by the demands of his life-project of Starbucking. Beginning in 1997, Winter has visited 16,532 Starbucks at the time of writing. This call was undertaken in three parts, the first while he was waiting for a plane to take him to Honolulu from Kahalui in order to visit five Starbucks stores, photograph them, and consume a caffeinated beverage at each. As he waited for his plane to board I spoke to him about his current Hawaiian ‘blitz’.

AP: Where do you decide to go to next? Obviously Hawaii is beautiful, does that come into your exploration of certain areas?

W: Oh, no. This was not actually a decision that I made. This is just following the logical path… Once I was in Canada due to the entry requirements, I was forced into a route that took me all across the country…It’s not just the time and logistical issues, it’s also an environmental issue… If you’re involved in a project that, by nature, has a large carbon footprint because it involves travel, but you are also environmentally conscious, then the compromise is to do it in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

Throughout the conversation, a deep sense of pragmatism came through in the way Winter spoke of the project. While Starbucking may be read as a critique of the endless growth of capitalist culture (a Sisyphean chasing of the stop button on the hedonic treadmill), Winter’s caffeinated pursuit leans less ‘art-school project’, instead mostly existing for its own sake, a project that was birthed as a ‘why not?’, while affirming Winter’s goal-oriented mindset and willingly nomadic lifestyle. It’s what surrounds Starbucks, the exploration inherent in the constraints of his journey, that form the pleasures and blood-cells of Starbucking. The brand of Starbucks, its corporate cult-of-personality, is secondary to its sheer number of stores. It is the number that Winter collects, his preference for coffee aligned more with indie coffee houses than the individual nodes of Starbucks’ sprawling retail network.

AP: I notice you focus a lot on Colombian beans. How much of a bean-aficionado are you?

W: I’m not sure what you mean by bean-aficionado but I will say the Columbian coffees are some of my favourite. I have two countries that I would consider some of my favourites, Kenya and Colombia, with Ethiopia coming in a close second.

Starbucking is not simply number-keeping nor a mechanical process. In its significance in Winter’s life, the story and methodology of it flow out from each individual store, it becomes the hours between stores, the breaths between sips — downtime is taken in consideration with the next store’s location. With ever-present commitment to a goal comes its everlasting presence. The story of Starbucking is the story of Winter.

W: I think there’s something definitely performative about what I’m doing. If the goal were just to document the Starbucks, then I would crowdsource it and have people send me pictures. But that’s not the primary goal, and any time you’re trying to do something unique… if you’re just an athlete trying to break a record, there’s still a performative element to that.

AP: There’s still a human in the analytical.

W: Yes.

The second call with Winter began after his flight to Kalahui, as he was waiting for his rental car.

AP: How was the flight?

W: The flight was fine, it’s very short. OGG to HNL is, like, a forty minute flight so that was nothing. Everything since has been a disaster.

A rental car reservation accidentally not booked, a 45-minute wait for a suitable car (one that can be slept in), and the worst of it, one of the five stores Winter had on his list had closed roughly two weeks prior.

AP: Is that permanently?

W: Yeah, it was the first store to open back in May of 2019, like three months after my last trip, and it closed about two weeks ago, so that’s disappointing.

This kind of disaster is baked into the practice of Starbucking. The unmitigable reality of constant travel, and of the ephemerality of brick-and-mortar Starbucks stores. This closure doesn’t bring relief, either. Though one less Starbucks store in the world means Winter’s end goal of total world documentation comes a step closer, his language to me was one of frustration and loss. Ever since realising that Starbucks stores could close at any time, Winter has felt a profound disappointment with every closure. Though, with twenty-one years of experience, he has developed a sense of equanimity to this element of Starbucking.

AP: I hope this next question doesn’t imprint a certain way of thinking, I’m more just curious. Do you ever see a life where you didn’t do Starbucking?

W: No. It’s a part of my identity.

AP: And it’s just a more preferable life to you.

W: [pause] preferable to what?

AP: To, I suppose, the more linear average life. The 9-5, the house with two dogs or whatever.

W: It’s not… it’s not even in the realm of possibility. It’s like: do you like girls or guys or both?

AP: Both, probably. Guys definitely.

W: Okay, uh, well, you’re hard because you said you like both. But if you had said you only liked guys, then I would have said: ‘so, can you picture yourself being with a woman?’

AP: Right, yeah, I understand.

W: You would have answered no, and I would have said, it’s kind of the same thing with me and a normal settled-down life, regular life, job, house, and all that. It’s just something that I have zero interest in. What I have interest in is a life where I’m constantly accomplishing things… Improving myself as a person, and then external accomplishments, or things that other people can appreciate, like Starbucking.

As Howard Schultz named his store after the first mate of the Pequod, Starbuck, in the book Moby Dick, so too does Starbucks, the brand, seem to embody Winter’s White Whale. Journeying across the globe, camera in hand, he seeks the elusive whip of its tail, the flank under the waves. As Ahab becomes consumed with the chase, he follows it to his desire-wrought demise. Winter describes doing Starbucking until physically unable, or, presumably, until Starbucks ceases to exist. Next year, Winter will reach 25 years of Starbucking, and his 50th birthday.

Our third call took place as Winter was grabbing dinner, having collected a keyless car that he could not figure out how to turn off. As his bento was going cold he told me of his plans to visit a new country next year, secure a publisher, and publish his book. As we said goodbye and ended the call, the lengths to which Winter goes in his Starbucking surfaced again. I saw a post on his Instagram an hour later of the interior of his car, the car-light on. It was going to be a sleepless night, it seemed. One might wonder what Winter would do were his goal achieved, were it achievable. But then, maybe the impossibility is what makes Starbucking possible.

W: It’s one of those things I’m going to do once to get through it, but I don’t feel the need to read Moby Dick again.

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