I live in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, an area that's kind of like the Park Slope of the west coast. It's got lots of restaurants and bars and plenty of famous people live and hang out here; it's a pretty standard stomping ground for a lot of modern comedy greats. If you ever wanted to meet Community's Dan Harmon, I recommend visiting the Los Feliz dive bar The Drawing Room probably any night of the week.
Right next to The Drawing Room is a strange new coffee shop that has become the focus of tons of internet interest, all because of the name. The place is called Dumb Starbucks. Yes, Dumb Starbucks.
Dumb Starbucks opened Saturday, and I decided to go early Sunday morning and visit the place, since it's only a couple of blocks from my apartment. My roommate and I got up early and found that, even at just after 9am on a Sunday, the line for Dumb Starbucks was out the door and stretched across the entire strip mall where it's located. The owner of one of the stores stood outside, looking bemused at the line of hipsters and dipshits (myself included), and said that the owners of Dumb Starbucks had given all the local shop owners free coffee the day before. Which isn't that big a deal, since all the coffee at Dumb Starbucks is free. As are the pastries, which are pulled directly from a Von's box.
The line moved incredibly slowly, something that was baffling once I finally got inside because they were only serving hot coffee, iced coffee and lattes. There was a sign with a full roster of 'Dumb' drinks, but they didn't actually have the makings of anything except basic coffee and lattes. The woman behind the counter, April, kept apologizing to people, saying the shipment hadn't come in that morning.
Everybody in line had a theory. A couple behind me claimed to know the artist who had set this up. A person in front said it as part of a documentary about copyright law. I had seen a film crew setting up a few days earlier - a real film crew, not the small crew you'd find if an artist or documentarian were doing this - and I suspected the whole thing was another elaborite Nathan For You stunt. Nathan Fielder's show had previously attained national attention when he had a petting zoo fake a video of a pig saving a baby goat from drowning; that video had gone viral and been covered on the national news, and it wasn't until Nathan For You aired, a few months later, that anyone knew the truth. Dumb Starbucks - complete with its FAQ that seems to misunderstand parody law - feels very much like a Nathan Fielder joke.
Looking back at the line from the front door of Dumb Starbucks.
If it was a Nathan For You bit, Fielder wasn't there. He couldn't be, as Los Feliz is one of the few neighborhoods where he would be guaranteed to be recognized (he had done stunts in my neighborhood before, by the way, including one at my usual watering hole the Public House). No one was there except April and two other guys behind the counter. They had Dumb CDs, but they weren't for sale. Generic mugs and coffee presses were technically for sale, but no money was changing hands at Dumb Starbucks; the tip jar was overflowing with fives.
What kind of person goes to Dumb Starbucks and waits in line for an hour for a free medium coffee? Well, I was there hoping it was a TV prank. My roommate was there suffering; her interest in irony evaporated when she realized it would be a long time before she got her morning coffee. Other people were talking about art. Some people were laughing and taking pictures - lots of ironic hipster types were showing up to take selfies in front of the Dumb Starbucks sign. A guy in front of me was on his phone the whole time, and at one point while waiting in line an hour for free novelty coffee he said, "My agent wants me to entertain the offer, but I have better things to do." The Drawing Room, being a proper drunkard bar, had been open since 6am and every now and again some old alkie would walk out to smoke a cigarette and look at the line disapprovingly.
9:45 AM on a Sunday!
I was struck by how many people were making friends with those around them in line (not us, by the way. Never us). People were exchanging numbers and emails and giving each other food and drink recommendations. For most people it was about the experience, the ability to say they had been there and seen a weird thing early. It was just a strange, fun thing in the morning. I was at The Drawing Room around 3 for day drinking and saw that the line was out of the strip mall and wending its way up the street. Dumb Starbucks slowly ran out of coffee cups (emblazoned with Dumb Starbucks - they're now on eBay for $50), but they must have gotten more, because the line was around the corner again this morning. It's important to know that no one in LA - and especially in this neighborhood - actually works for a living, so everybody has time on a Monday morning to wait in line for novelty coffee.
When we finally got to the front of the line it was clear that the barista, April, a pretty young black woman, was an actress. She had been well-trained to play the role of an actual barista, talking about the coffee like this was a real coffee shop, and repeating that parody law covered the use of the Starbucks logo. The Los Feliz hipsters all had to get in on the joke, and everybody in front of me gave a 'Dumb' version of their name. The guy talking about his agent used the fitting name 'Dumb Shit.' A lady called herself Dummie Dum Dum J Dummie. You know, hilarious improv stuff like that. We all know that white people think baristas getting their name wrong on coffee is one of the funniest things ever, so this was like heaven to them.
So how was the coffee? Not that great. It was bascially gas station coffee, which I don't actually mind. I wonder if they were brewing Starbucks grounds, which you can buy for ten bucks at the actual Starbucks a few blocks away. By the time I got my coffee they had run out of sugar, although the skim milk remained full.
The question now is how long they can stay open. The fact that they're giving coffee away is a sure sign they're paying their rent through other means than commerce. But the cafe's understanding of parody law seems to be confused, and the example they use - Weird Al using Beat It as the basis for Eat It - isn't even correct. Weird Al licenses the songs he parodies, which is why he's never been able to parody certain artists, like Prince. But more than that, the parody concept becomes difficult to maintain because they're operating in the same commerical realm as Starbucks - this isn't a song or movie parody, it's a coffee shop that looks just like a Starbucks coffee shop (down to the exact same mermaid logo). That said, all the porno 'parodies' feature exact reproductions of characters from non-porno movies, and they just slap a 'Not' in front of the title and somehow get away with it.
The Dumb Starbucks FAQ. These are going for $60 on eBay. Seriously.
The identity of the prankster behind Dumb Starbucks will surely get out soon, and Starbucks has begun to pay attention. It'll be interesting to see if this is Nathan For You, an art project or just somebody fucking around. In the meantime I'll keep waiting for a Dunkin' Donuts to open around here so I can get some really good coffee.