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When my wife and two boys and I go road-tripping, we hunt for highway exits with one very specific combination: a Waffle House and a Starbucks. The Waffle House, because, duh, it’s the finest dining you’ll encounter near the interstate. Starbucks, because, while the Waffle House excels at smothering and peppering hash browns, its coffee tastes terrible. Stuffed with pecan waffles and scrambled eggs, we steer our Hyundai through the Starbucks drive-through, while my wife and I whip out our smart phones to collect our Starbucks Rewards stars.

If my younger self could see me doing this, he’d cold-cock me. Starbucks has been vilified for its ravenous expansion, and I’ve agreed with that criticism. There’s nothing wrong with success, but along with Amazon, fast food restaurants and smartphones, Starbucks has flattened American life, turning cities and towns into predictable replicas of other cities and towns.

I remember when Starbucks opened a location across the street from Maude’s, my favorite coffee shop in Gainesville. While Maude’s offered free board games, an inventive and evolving coffee menu and stick-figure emo servers who were friendly and warm one second and surly the next, the Starbucks across the way offered corporate conformity, with a rigid set of flavors, a squeaky-clean ambiance and lame tunes. It didn’t bother me that Starbucks existed, but did it have to open next door to my favorite spot in a transparent attempt to steal their business?

But the market cares not for our personal sentiments. The Starbucks empire has continued to enlarge, expanding from 6,705 stores in 2011 to 7,880 in 2016, and at some point, my opposition to the chain began to weaken. Having two kids showed me the glory of the drive-through, and working as a freelancer turned me into a desperate hound sniffing for free Wi-Fi.

And let’s face it: On a road trip, there’s nothing better. When I’m in Sarasota and my time is limitless, I prefer to patronize small, independent coffee shops like Perq, The Reserve and Buddy Brew. But interstate exits in southern Georgia aren’t known for their easy-to-access single-origin pour-over shops, and when I’m there, the great homogenizing of American life doesn’t seem 100 percent deleterious. Starbucks may have standardized the coffee landscape, but it’s also elevated it in places where in the past you’d have been forced to suck down cheap, watery brew. 

Thanks in part to Starbucks, we all now know what an Americano is, and our ongoing education allows the genuine primo spots to take their coffee to an even higher place.

That’s probably happening at Maude’s, which is still around, and where I hope the regulars are still snarking out at the squares across the street. The ghost of my younger self resides with those misfits, but I urge him: Don’t judge me.

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