Ten years of Trenta at Starbucks: a retrospective

So apparently it’s been a whole decade since Starbucks rolled out the Trenta size beverages, judging by the date of my previous post “To Starbucks, size matters“. A lot has changed since then, but as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For starters, the Trenta size hasn’t gone anywhere over the last decade. Not surprisingly, I have ordered my fair share of iced teas in this size, though I have backed off to Venti or even Grande in certain situations (when I know I won’t be drinking a whole lot, or when I’m low on funds on my Starbucks account and don’t feel like reloading). Much to even my own surprise, I’m also ordering the occasional Frappucino or iced mocha, though I still consider the iced tea my go-to drink (even if it’s sometimes the passion tea instead of good old black).

I get why Mr. Sorenson objected so strongly to Starbucks adding a fourth and comparatively large size. But the reality is, this is Starbucks doing what a business should do: listening to the customers and giving them what they want. And clearly, the Trenta size is what they wanted.

Looking back, the controversy surrounding the Trenta size reminds me a lot of another event I wrote about, the New York City large soda restrictions. Though the latter happened later, there is definitely a common thread. For soda fans with quart-sized appetites, the good news is the New York state courts struck down the restrictions stating that the New York City Board of Health exceeded its authority in establishing the rule, and it was eventually formally repealed.

While I get that there is a point at which soda consumption starts to become unhealthy (some of that, unfortunately, comes from personal experience), I believe that the public backlash from the NYC soda size restriction shows that people don’t like being ordered around and, in a way, herded like cattle. The backlash against Starbucks rolling out the larger size never materialized as some might have feared or welcomed, whatever the case may be.

Long live the Trenta. Here’s to many more great years to come.

The infamous soda battle of New York City

A recent ABC News story details the by-now-well-known proposal by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. From the article:

In his latest effort to fight obesity in this era of Big Gulps and triple bacon cheeseburgers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing an unprecedented ban on large servings of soda and other sugary drinks at restaurants, delis, sports arenas and movie theaters.

Drinks would be limited to 16 ounces, which is considered a small serving at many fast-food joints.

Now, let’s think about this for a minute: A 16-ounce (473 mL) limit would even ban 20-ounce (591 mL) bottles. A typical medium-size drink in most national chains is 20 ounces, sometimes up to 24 ounces (710 mL). (I say “national” because at Taco Cabana and Whataburger, 20 ounces is the small, 32 ounces (946 mL) is the medium, and 44 ounces (1.3 L) is the large. But what do you expect from Texas companies? We’d never let some Yankee tell us 16 ounces is as big as you can go.)

Once upon a time, sodas were commonly available in 16-ounce (glass) bottles. I’m not sure of the exact year of the change, but the common size for bottles now is the 20-ounce size (with some locations offering 1-liter bottles in some flavors). I know at least Coca-Cola offers aluminum bottles in 8.5 ounce (251 mL) which roughly correspond to a former glass bottle size (which I’m not sure if it’s still being made), but this is a specialty item that’s not sold very widely. The ones I bought were mainly purchased for the package design (that, and I was at a hotel and I didn’t feel like going all the way back down to the gift shop on the first floor).

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for a major soda company’s PR department to fire one right back:

“The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes,” Coca-Cola Co. said in a statement. “New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase.”

Kudos to Coca-Cola for striking back against this insanity. To be fair, they’ll feel anything that would kill sales in a city the size of New York, so it’s in their interest to say this is dumb. But I’m sure their customers feel the same way.

The article goes on to cite this nugget of dubious wisdom:

Bloomberg said people who want to guzzle soda would still be free to order more than one drink. But he said restricting servings to 16 ounces each could help curb consumption.

Now, I doubt this is actually true, and I’ll explain why. For one, most fast food restaurants allow free refills. Even some movie theatres allow free refills, which to be honest, at the prices charged is the least they can do. It’s not clear from everything I’ve read whether or not Bloomberg plans to ban those as well. If so, this is even worse than I could have imagined, and I would even say it could be considered restraint of trade if looked at in the right way.

Second, what I predict will happen is that people will start becoming less restrained about bringing in their own drinks. The sale on two 12-ounce cans or two 16-ounce fountain drinks will be lost to the convenience store with no limit. And the restaurant owners, rather than risk irking their customers and losing the sale entirely, will grow accustomed to seeing someone bring in a soda from the convenience store around the corner and just not say anything.

It’s obvious why Mayor Bloomberg is floating such an outrageous policy: in New York, the term limit for mayor is three terms, and this is his third term. So, not surprisingly, voters have little recourse should they feel he stepped over the line. However, it would not surprise me in the least if Bloomberg’s successor decides to repeal this law should it pass very early in the term.

So my response to this short-sighted proposal is this: If Mayor Bloomberg really cares about health, how about an aggressive tax against tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, etc)? Make it so expensive to smoke in New York that people will have to quit due to financial reasons. That will do far more for health than any silly “you can only have a small soda” law. And if for some reason cities can’t tax cigarettes in New York State, then the law up there is even more broken than I thought.

Drinking soda shouldn’t be this taxing

In a recent blog entry on Forbes.com, Kelly Phillips Erb writes about the latest item to appear in the “tax gun” crosshairs of Philadelphia mayor Michael A. Nutter: soda. Thankfully, by the time I got around to writing this post, the tax appears to be dead.

Even though I live well over a thousand miles away from Philadelphia, it’s disturbing to read of a plan to single out something I like so much for taxation, on the grounds it’s a “vice.” It’s more disturbing that Mayor Nutter nonchalantly and casually says it’s about money for the schools. Given that Texas is seen as a leader in education (we were the first to pass the No Pass No Play law back in 1984 which was copied elsewhere), it’s easy to see where my concern comes from. (I have quite a bit to say about NPNP and its unintended consequences that I’ll address in a future entry.)

Anyway, Kelly’s post goes on to address the issue that soda taxes disproportionately affect the poor and middle class. I don’t know which, honestly, increases my discomfort more: the “tax it because it’s bad, and people will automatically buy it less” mindset, or the idea that those proposing the tax are probably not in the income brackets that it affects the most.

From Kelly’s post:

I’m not a fan of sin taxes. I think taxes focused on specific products are silly and quite frankly, judgmental. What I think constitutes bad behavior and what you think may be very different. I worry about where we draw the line… What’s next? Video games? Coffee (note to legislators: don’t even consider this one or there could be serious problems)? Candy?

Of particular note: video games (coin-op video games) are already taxed. Most jurisdictions require an occupancy tax sticker to be affixed to each machine. The end players don’t necessarily pay a tax per play, but it’s more money the operators have to take in to break even. It’s another week or two of a new game being $1 per play instead of 75¢ (or whatever they are up to now), or the difficulty level being “hard” instead of “medium”, etc.

Taxing can and does get out of hand. The first (modern) income taxes in 1913 were from 1% to 7%. Today, we are up to the lowest income bracket taxed at 10%; shortly after World War II, of course, the rates were much higher, peaking at 42% for the lowest bracket in 1952 (see the Wikipedia article “Income tax in the United States”). Many states also have their own income tax; almost all have a sales tax of some type (some going well over 10% by the time you add local taxes).

I honestly don’t think most “sin taxes” work in the sense they were intended. What I suspect happens, is these taxes simply add to a growing resent of the government. And that gets people that do potentially irrational things like decide simply to vote against the incumbents, every time (if they bother voting at all).

So either way, a “sin tax” to raise money for education is asking for trouble. It’s a catch-22: if the tax works and gets people to buy the “bad thing” less (soda, in this case), there’s less tax money and the cycle repeats. If it doesn’t work, then you have more people that hate the government. Here’s hoping the likes of Mayor Nutter think it through next time.