So, hey, fun fact: You know Starbucks? The monolithic coffee company famous for everything from actual coffee to Unicorn Frappuccinos? It very nearly wasn’t called Starbucks. In fact, Starbucks was almost called Cargo House, according to an old interview with original founder Gordon Bowker that’s currently making the rounds again. Today seems to be a day of destroying everything I thought I knew about everything (hi there, Pillsbury Doughboy), so, uh… let’s roll with it, shall we? It’s a fascinating piece of history, even if it means I have to realign my entire thought process surrounding this particular siren song of coffee. (Bustle has reached out to Starbucks for comment and will update if/when we hear back.)
Interestingly, the interview in which this little tidbit of information appears isn’t new; in fact, it’s actually from quite a long time ago — 2008. (That’s nine years ago, you guys.) It ran in the Seattle Times on March 9 that year, but within the past few days, it’s come back with a vengeance. A delicious, coffee-scented vengeance. That’s the kind of vengeance I can definitely get behind.
In any event, though, before we get to the name discussion, it’ll help to have a little bit of an understanding of the history of Starbucks so — let’s talk about that for a minute. The very first Starbucks — the one still located at 1st and Pike at the entrance to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, although the original building no longer exists — opened on March 30, 1971, after having been founded by three friends who originally met at the University of San Francisco. Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker had all been taught the art of coffee roasting by Alfred Peet (who also founded his own coffee empire, by the way — he was the man behind Peet’s Coffee and Tea); as Bowker remembers it, though, the name they eventually opened their store under wasn’t initially a top contender.
In that 2008 interview, Bowker told the Seattle Times, “My recollection is this: We were thinking of all kinds of names and came desperately close to calling it Cargo House, which would have been a terrible, terrible mistake.”
And… that’s all he said about it. I haven’t been able to dig up anything else about what inspired that particular name; maybe it’s actually the lack of inspiration that would have made it a terrible choice. As I previously noted, Bustle has reached out to Starbucks for comment and will update if/when we hear anything back; if anyone can shed any light on the subject, it would be Starbucks itself.
But! Even if information is scarce on exactly what “Cargo House” meant, there’s plenty of lore floating around about how the founders eventually arrived at “Starbucks.” If you’re well-versed in American literature, then you won’t be surprised to find that yes, there’s a connection to a certain Herman Melville novel; the path getting there, though, has a few twists and turns.
“Terry Heckler [with whom Bowker owned an advertising agency] mentioned in an offhand way that he thought words that begin with ‘st’ were powerful words,” Bowker told the Seattle Times. “I thought about that and I said, yeah, that’s right, so I did a list of ‘st’ words.” From there, however, the story takes a bit of a turn: Someone — Bowker didn’t remember who — found a mining map of the Cascades and Mount Rainier, on which was a mining town called Starbo. “As soon as I saw Starbo, I, of course, jumped to Melville’s first mate in Moby-Dick,” Bowker said — the first mate being named Starbuck.
However, Bowker also acknowledges that Moby-Dick didn’t really have anything to do with the coffee company that bears its first mate’s name directly. “It was only coincidental that the sound seemed to make sense,” said Bowker. What’s more, the connection only gets even more muddled the further you look: “A lot of times you’ll see references to the coffee-loving first mate of [Ahab’s ship] the Pequod. And then somebody said to me, well no, it wasn’t that he loved coffee in the book, it was that he loved coffee in the movie. … Moby-Dick has nothing to do with coffee as far as I know.”
But even though the connection may be a tad tenuous, it somehow feels right, doesn't it? I mean, yes, it’s possible that I say that because decades of association between the name and the drink have cemented the relationship between the two in my own coffee-loving brain; however, there’s something about the seafaring image that the name and the mermaid logo jointly bring up that’s fitting. Seattle is a port city; coffee has a long journey from the plant to your cup; to me, it all kind of makes sense.
Interestingly, another Moby-Dick-inspired name was apparently also in the running; Seattle Pi noted that in Howard Schultz’s 2011 book Pour Your Heart Into It, Bowker and other investors floated the idea of calling the company “Pequod,” after Ahab’s ship in the novel. The name, however, was allegedly rejected on the grounds that the sound of the word — particularly its first syllable — would be unappetizing as the name of a coffee house.
Tangentially related: If you Google “cargo house” — just in case you're idly wondering what the significance or meaning of the phrase is — what you’ll find these days is loads and loads of pages about houses made from shipping containers. Just, y’know… FYI.