Starbucks: Work or Play?

Shelter From the Storm

I had just finished the long walk back to south campus from classes. Even though my classes were over, my day wasn’t by a long shot. Just as my luck would have it, the sky ripped open and water fell in great drops around me, darkening the bricks on the path. To avoid getting wet, I jogged into the nearest shelter: Rams Head dining hall. As soon as I pulled open the door the familiar smell of freshly ground coffee beans hit me. All the stress of the day seemed to dissolve. I had stepped into an oasis that was disconnected from the rest of campus life. As the cafe wasn’t very full, I quickly claimed one of the big armchairs by the fireplace and sat down. After ordering some much needed coffee, I opened my laptop to work like most of the students there. This was the first time I had noticed just how calm and relaxed being in the space made me feel. I had been unconsciously frequenting Starbucks to find a relaxing place to do my work. After researching, I found that I had developed a third place attachment because of physical, social, cultural and environmental dimensions (Tumanan & Lansangan, 2012, p. 530). Curious for more information, I conducted an ethnography on the Starbucks in Rams. I found that the Starbucks in Rams is a third place to students like myself because of the relaxing atmosphere created by the physical layout and because it is such a unique study space.


In order to do this study, I began by simply observing the Starbucks. The first observation was from 12:45 P.M. to 1:15 on October 19, 2016. The second observation was from 9:10 P.M to 9:40 P.M. on October 27, 2016. I took notes on my phone so as to blend in with the scenery of Starbucks. I noted that this particular Starbucks was rather large with a variety of seating options. There were large plush leather chairs next to a fireplace, tables, booths, and a low bar against the windows to choose from. Students working in groups preferred tables and booths. The students who were working alone were able to sit at all of the seating options. The lights washed dimly over the café and accented the photography and seasonal decorations of the walls. The floors and tables were generally clean and there was an overall calm vibe about the place. In addition to the observations, I surveyed a total of 5 customers to gain insight about their experience at this particular Starbucks[i]

What I Learned

Social Workplace

I first noticed the café was a third place after researching and noting similarities between third places described in academic journals and Starbucks at Rams. Thompson and Arsel put it this way: “Third-places (e.g., diners, taverns, pubs, cafés, coffee shops) exist between the formality and seriousness of the work sphere and the privacy and familial intimacy of the domestic sphere…are conducive to informal conversations and casual friendships, where patrons imbibe a comforting sense of community, camaraderie, and social engagement (2004, p.633).” For college students, a third place is neither class or library nor their dorm or apartment. A third place would also have to be a place with an easy-going environment where people felt like part of a group.  Going by this, it makes sense that Starbucks in Rams can be considered a third place.


I observed that the Starbucks in Rams serves as a gathering place for students to study, but it is not exclusively one. The patrons experienced the sense of camaraderie mentioned by Thompson and Arsel because most students were working on homework, individually or in groups. However, patrons were also having casual conversations, joking about this project that had to be done and that paper that had to be written while taking breaks and drinking coffee. One interviewee stated, “Here there is the opportunity to socialize if you want to. I guess you can do that in a library, but people might get tired of you talking versus in here where you can” (personal communications, November 2, 2016).  This is one of Starbucks’ most attractive features to students: the ability to form casual friendships and be in an environment that is productive yet not stiff like a library, which is exclusively for studying. “It’s kind of in between a library and a restaurant (personal communications, November 2, 2016).” This flexibility and variety of ways to use the space makes it a unique space for students to form third place. Starbucks in Rams can be considered a third place because of the informality, community, atmosphere, and social interactions that occur readily there.

Interior Design


“What?! Interior design? What does that have to do with Starbucks being a third place?” A lot, actually. A recent study done for the Journal of Interior Design stated that third places don’t always happen by chance. Waxman (2004) asserts “To successfully create spaces that serve as third places and community gathering places, designers should understand the social and physical characteristics of the place that enhance the patron’s experience” (pp.37-38). Interior designers can actually create spaces that nurture third place attachments. They simply cater to what the people like.

So what do the people like and how do designers cater to them? “The top five characteristics of the ideal coffee shop included cleanliness, aroma, adequate lighting, comfortable furniture, and a view to the outside” (Waxman, 2004, pp.42-43). With this in mind, designers made the Starbucks in Rams extra cozy. The use of art, dimmed lighting, themed decorations, and the variety of places to sit enhanced the ability of students to form third place attachments. One patron described the interior design as “mellow” and stated that it had “pretty calm colors and not bright lights (personal communications, November 2, 2016).”


The students seemed to enjoy the fact that this particular Starbucks is spaced well with a variety of places to study in. Another thing that the patrons enjoyed seemed to be the exposure to natural lighting in the daytime. When asked what part of the interior design they liked most two patrons excitedly answered, “The windows!”(Personal communications, November 2, 2016).  Even I noticed that the coffee shop was clean and well taken care of. The physical layout of the store created an environment that seemed to say, “relax”.

What Now?

With this evidence in mind, it is reasonable to conclude that Starbucks in Rams serves as a third space for students at UNC Chapel Hill. The interior design is cozy, you can be productive without feeling pressured, and best of all there is coffee. This information is inductive to understanding why this generation of college students form third place attachments to places such as this. Perhaps it is because of the aesthetic that Starbucks provides with the interior design and vibe. It is possible that this generation values comfort and acceptance more and Starbucks provides. If we are to better understand this generation, we must study their attachments and figure out what drives them to places like the Starbucks at Rams.


Works cited

Waxman, L. (2006). The coffee shop: Social and physical factors influencing place attachment. Journal of Interior Design31(3), 35-53

Tumanan, M. A. R., & Lansangan, J. R. G. (2012). More than just a cuppa coffee: A multi-dimensional approach towards analyzing the factors that define place attachment. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 31(2), 529-534

Thompson, C. J., & Arsel, Z. (2004). The Starbucks brandscape and consumers'(anticorporate) experiences of glocalization. Journal of Consumer Research31(3), 631-64.



[i] Interview Questions:

  1. How would you describe the atmosphere of Starbucks?
  2. Why did you choose to do homework in Starbucks as opposed to a different location? Is there anything in particular that makes this Starbucks favorable to study in?
  3. Why did you choose Starbucks to socialize in as opposed to a different location?
  4. Do you often come to Starbucks? If yes, why?
  5. Do you come to Starbucks just for coffee or for other reasons?
  6. Do you like the interior design? What about the interior design do you like?



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