10 Things You Don't Know About Starbucks (But Should!)

Getty Images
Getty Images

Starbucks is the coffee icon people either love or love to hate. The Seattle company opened its first shop in 1971, and all these years later, the coffee giant is still brewing up addictive drinks and venti-sized controversy across the globe. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Starbucks.

1. It Could Have Been "˜Pequods'

Nothing says marketing genius like an extremely vague literary reference. At least that was the logic of Starbucks' original founders — two teachers and a writer — who chose to name their fledgling coffee bean business after a minor character in Moby-Dick.

When the first Starbucks opened in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971, it didn't sell coffee drinks, just beans. The founders wanted to name the place after Captain Ahab's first mate Starbuck. Right"¦ that guy. Before that, they considered naming it after Ahab's boat, the Pequod, but changed their mind — according to a Starbucks spokesperson — when a friend tried out the tagline "Have a cup of Pequod."

2. About That Logo...

At close inspection, the Starbucks logo makes no sense. At closer inspection, it makes even less sense, plus you risk dipping your nose in frap foam.

There's some lady with long hair wearing a crown and holding what appears to be two"¦ giant salmon? Decapitated palm trees? Miniature sand worms from Beetlejuice?

Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with the cryptic image. Anti-Semitic groups have claimed that the crowned maiden is the biblical Queen Esther, proving that Starbucks is behind various Zionist plots. Others see parallels to Illuminati imagery. The real story is less about evil conspiracies than prudish graphic design.

Since Starbucks was named after a nautical character, the original Starbucks logo was designed to reflect the seductive imagery of the sea. An early creative partner dug through old marine archives until he found an image of a siren from a 16th century Nordic woodcut. She was bare-breasted, twin-tailed and simply screamed, "Buy coffee!"

In the ensuing years, Starbucks marketing types decided to tastefully cover up the mer-boobs with long hair, drop the suggestive spread-eagle tail and give the 500-year-old sea witch a youthful facelift. The result? Queen Esther at Sea World.

3. "˜Want a Kidney With That?'

For three years, Annamarie Ausnes was just another Sharpie-scrawled name on a paper cup. She would stop by the same Tacoma, Washington, Starbucks a few times a week for a morning lift and make small talk with barista Sandie Andersen. No one would have called them friends. And no one could have guessed what would happen next.

For 20 years, Ausnes had suffered from polycystic kidney disease, a rare condition that invariably ends in kidney failure. In the fall of 2007, the 55-year-old started feeling weak and her doctor confirmed that her kidneys were only operating at 15%. Any lower and she'd have to go on dialysis. Much like a barroom regular spilling his soul to the bartender, Ausnes shared her sad tale with the friendly barista Andersen, who went above and beyond the call of customer service. Andersen immediately got a blood test, and when she found out she was a match, told Ausnes that she wanted to donate her kidney. A few months later, the two women -- barista and casual professional acquaintance -- entered the Virginia Mason Medical Center to swap internal organs. The transplant was a success, leaving the only remaining question: how much of a tip do you leave for a kidney?

4. A Starbucks on Every Corner

There are over 16,700 Starbucks locations in more than 50 countries, including Wales, which we're pretty sure isn't a country (update: it is a country). During a particularly heady period in the late 1990s and early aughts, Starbucks was opening a new store every workday.

In 2008 and 2009, as millions of Starbucks customers lost their latte money — and their homes, cars and first born children — to the recession, the coffee giant was forced to shrink just a tad. It closed 771 stores worldwide and has plans to close a couple hundred more. Australia was particularly hard-hit, losing 61 of its 84 Starbucks in July 2008. At least they still have giant beer and koalas.

But before you start feeling sorry for the Seattle-based mega-company, consider this statistic gathered by Harper's magazine in 2002, confirming the nagging suspicion that Starbucks is stalking you: 68 of Manhattan's 124 Starbucks are located within two blocks (!) of another Starbucks. [Image credit: Starbucks Everywhere]

5. Hand in the Tip Jar

Back in 2008, a San Diego judge ordered Starbucks to pay back $86 million in tips (plus interest) to over 100,000 of its California baristas. For years, Starbucks had a policy of spreading the tip jar love among all employees, even shift supervisors. The cash and coins (and occasional Skittles) were pooled weekly and divvied out according to how many hours the employee had clocked, adding up to an extra $1.71 an hour.

An ex-barista filed a class-action suit in 2006 citing that supervisors aren't entitled to tips under California law. The Super Court judge agreed, and dropped the $105 million bomb on Starbucks in a curt four-paragraph ruling. Starbucks called the suit "fundamentally unfair and beyond all common sense and reason," citing the fact that supervisors also make coffee and serve customers.

In a rare win for corporate American (ahem), the judge's ruling was reversed a year later by the Court of Appeals, who agreed that supervisors "essentially perform the same job as baristas." Just don't tell that to their girlfriends.

6. Who's "˜So Vain' Now?

Carly Simon is famous for her transparently personal "you-done-me-wrong" ballads in which unnamed exes like Cat Stevens and James Taylor drag her heart through the dirt. But few people expected the 64-year-old crooner to lavish the same overwrought emotion on Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks.

In 2009, Simon filed a lawsuit against Starbucks, claiming the coffee chain had failed to adequately promote her album This Kind of Love, produced and distributed by Starbucks' house label, Hear Music. But before she called her lawyer, Simon sent a series of handwritten notes to CEO Schultz, including the following quasi-Haiku quoted in the New York Times: "Howard, Fraud is the creation of Faith/ And then the betrayal. Carly."

For its part, Starbucks said it stocked Simon's CD at over 7,000 stores, put it on heavy rotation in the droning Starbucks soundtrack and even kept the slow-selling album on the shelves way past its expiration date just to be "nice." In the end, it was Starbucks' vice president of brand content Chris Bruzzo who ended up sounding like a Carly Simon song:

"We're very disappointed that Carly has decided to file this suit because we worked very hard and put a lot of time, and energy, and effort from the music team and thousands of stores behind giving this album its best shot in finding its audience," Bruzzo said. Put a samba beat to that and he's got something.

7. "˜Forbidden' Latte

When a Starbucks affiliate opened a 200-square-foot coffee stand inside the walls of China's Forbidden City in 2000, the proud nation of 1.3 billion reacted as if someone had spilled a Venti Caramel Macchiato on its collective crotch.

A nationwide survey found that 70% of Chinese thought that a coffee shop had no business in the 600-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site. A news anchor on China's state-run television even led an online protest to the caffeinated intruder, saying that Starbucks "undermined the Forbidden City's solemnity and trampled over Chinese culture."

Turns out that Starbucks only opened the mini-outpost at the invitation of Forbidden City Museum officials who were "testing the waters" for more commercial interests in the 178-acre site. The test concluded that the waters were teeming with coffee-hating Chinese sharks. In 2007, the Forbidden City Starbucks (OK, that does sound a little funny) closed its tiny bamboo doors.

8. Undercover Bux

The owner of Victrola Coffee Roasters in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle knew something was brewing when a team of known Starbucks employees started hanging out at his shop and scribbling notes into a conspicuous folder labeled "OBSERVATIONS."

A few months later, the Starbucks outlet down the street closed up for renovations. The "slutty mermaid" sign came down and a new one went up: 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. Did someone actually buy out a Starbucks in Seattle? Was this a rare victory for little coffee? What do you think?

This was Starbucks being Starbucks without being Starbucks. The hope is that brand-averse hipsters will ignore the obvious Starbuckiness of the new store and concentrate on the new wine and beer selection (inspired by Victrola). Plans are in the works for additional stealth Starbucks in Seattle.

9. Reading Material

Back in the '90s, Starbucks tried to sell a paper version of Microsoft's online magazine Slate, which nobody read. In 1997, it started stocking selections from Oprah's Book Club, which nobody bought. And in 1999, it tried to publish its very own literary magazine called Joe, a convincingly high-brow, well-written, stylish rag that only lasted three issues.

10. The Starbucks-Peet's Connection

Remember the first time you saw The Empire Strikes Back? Luke's right hand goes hurdling down that bottomless vent thingy, he's holding on for his life, and Vader is going on about the power of the Dark Side. Then he drops the shocker-to-end-all-shockers: "I am your father." NOOOOOOOOOOO!

All you Peet's Coffee & Tea fans are about to have your own one-hand Luke moment. Back in 1970, Starbucks co-founder Jerry Baldwin worked at the original Berkeley location of Peet's, the creator of the American specialty coffee concept. When Baldwin and his buddies Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker decided to open their own coffee shop in Seattle in 1971, they bought all their raw beans from Alfred Peet.

But here's the kicker. Baldwin actually bought Peet's in 1984, then he sold Starbucks in 1987. He was the chairman of Peet's until 2001 when the store went public and he became the director. In other words, "Peet's, I am your father!"

So if you're one of those people who hates Starbucks and loves Peet's Coffee & Tea or one of those people who hates Peet's and loves the bux, it turns out you're only hating yourself.

11 Great Gifts for Retro Gaming Fans

No Starch Press/Amazon
No Starch Press/Amazon

Video games are more realistic, expansive, and ambitious than ever, but there’s one thing that most modern titles can’t offer: a hit of nostalgia. If you’re shopping for the retro gaming enthusiast in your life, check out these 11 gift suggestions that promise to level up their holiday season.

1. Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp; $30

The Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Liven up a stagnant work area or nightstand with this cool LED lamp in the likeness of Pac-Man’s ghost nemesis. It can flash in a variety of different colors, and at a compact 8 inches tall, you can buy more than one to haunt your living space.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Street Fighter II Home Arcade; $245

Street Fighter II Arcade Cabinet.
ARCADE1UP/Amazon

Relive the sweaty palms and raw fingertips of your youth with this Street Fighter II arcade cabinet from Arcade1Up. The entire package is true to its classic arcade roots, with era-appropriate artwork adorning the outside and buttons and joysticks that look like they were transported right out of a '90s Pizza Hut. But this cabinet comes with a bonus: Instead of just getting Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, it also plays Street Fighter ll: The New Challengers and Street Fighter ll Turbo. If you're not in the mood for competitive play, the company also offers a retro Star Wars arcade cabinet, featuring games based on A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Buy It: Amazon

3. Level One Donkey Kong T-Shirt; $41

A Level One 'Donkey Kong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Show off your love of arcade gaming with this cool design that depicts Mario’s earliest challenge: navigating the barrel-tossing rage of a giant ape.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

4. Playstation Coasters; $12

A set of four Playstation coasters is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Keep beverage stains off your gaming-adjacent furniture with this set of four coasters depicting classic Playstation controller buttons.

Buy It: Amazon

5. SEGA Genesis Mini-Console: $79

Sega Mini Classic System.
Sega/Amazon

Flash back to the Genesis era with this retro console that features over 40 games from SEGA’s heyday, including Sonic the Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim, and Virtua Fighter. The system also features a port of the arcade version of Tetris, which never actually made its way to the original Genesis.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks; $11

Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks are pictured
Sock It To Me/Amazon

Keep it professional in a suit but game on underneath with these dress socks featuring iconic game controllers from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony.

Buy It: Amazon

7. The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox; $19


No Starch Press/Amazon

Take in a photographic history of gaming consoles, from the vintage devices of the ‘70s like the Magnavox Odyssey on through Nintendo’s reign and the emergence of Sony and Microsoft. In all, 86 consoles are on display, ending with the era of the PS4 and Wii U.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nintendo Super Mario Bowser Vs. Mario 3-Pack Diorama; $26

A Nintendo Super Mario and Bowser diorama is pictured
World of Nintendo/Amazon

Let other people display fine art. You can show off this diorama depicting the biggest rivalry in retro gaming between Mario and Bowser. You'll also get a Bob-Omb figurine, just in case you want to recreate one of the duo's video game battles.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Playstation Wallet; $25

A Playstation wallet is pictured
SONY PlayStation/Amazon

Keep your cards and cash in one place with this Playstation-shaped wallet. There's even a button-snap opening in the shape of the system's disc tray.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Pong Shirt; $38

A 'Pong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Go so retro that Millennials won’t even know what you’re referencing with this nod to the popular game Pong.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

11. The Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater; $39

Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater
Nintendo/Amazon

It may call itself ugly, but those pixelated images of Link from Legend of Zelda are nothing but gorgeous to retro gamers. There's also a Mario version, if the portly Italian plumber is more your style.

Buy It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

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