Fancy Starbucks Drinks and the Special Snowflakes Who Order Them

Food customization is more than a craze in America—it's a reflection of identity.

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It’s been said that there are 87,000 ways to order a drink at Starbucks.

You’ve got your non-fat milk, full-fat milk, soy milk, and coconut milk; espresso shots; all the different flavored syrups, some of which are sugar-free; whipped cream; iced, hot, or “extra hot” if you’ve got a Kevlar tongue; different sizes; different roasts of coffee; and on and on and on.

Surely some of those combinations are gross—Venti green tea latte with peppermint and whipped cream, anyone?—but you can have them if you want them. And as Sophie Egan, a program director at the Culinary Institute of America, writes in her new book Devoured, that speaks to “a most American element of the American food psyche”: customization.

Along with Starbucks, Burger King is probably the most obvious example of this phenomenon, with its famous “Have It Your Way” slogan. (It has since changed to “Be Your Way,” suggesting that the Burger King recognizes that not only is your burger a special snowflake, but so are you.) But you can see it all over the place. Every chip, yogurt, and Clif Bar has a gazillion flavors. Americans have no problem going to any restaurant and asking for a dish without such and such ingredient, with this on the side, and light on the dressing why don’t you? This is a salad, not a stew.

In many other countries, this practice of tweaking your order, known as “cheffing,” would not stand. Or at least, it would stand out from the norm. But when Americans fiddle with recipes, “We don’t feel we’re insulting anyone,” Egan says. “We feel we’re getting our money’s worth.”

“People are very funny about food here,” adds Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University. “Americans think about their food as being more medicinal. They don’t eat for pleasure as much as Europeans do, so they’re always concerned about is what they’re eating going to hurt them? Is it good for them?” Zellner suspects a lot of cheffing has to do not only with people’s personal preferences (and possibly, fear of trying new foods) but with people tailoring their meals to better fit the health fad of the moment.

American culture is also notoriously individualist. We tend to define our personal identities as separate from our communities, which sociological research contrasts with the collectivism seen in other cultures, such as in East Asia or Kenya, where people tend to think of the groups they belong to as equal to or more important than their personal characteristics.

This craze of “mass customization,” Egan says, makes people feel both unique and catered to when they are able to have it their way.  It’s a “desire within our hyper industrialized food system to have something that feels like it meets my personal taste profile. We have access to customized and personalized food experiences at the restaurant level, at the fast casual level, and at the packaged food level and it has only increased.” People can personalize their order at Starbucks or wherever else, and they can also purchase whatever weirdly precise flavor of chips they prefer. (For example, Barbecue, Honey Barbecue, Sweet Southern Heat Barbecue, Hot n’ Spicy Barbecue, and Mesquite Barbecue are all available from Lay’s.) Some fast-food chains have “secret menus” which offer both more options and a supercharged opportunity to signal how special you are for knowing about them.

Ordering food digitally also makes it easier for people to customize what they eat—you can build your own pizza on many pizza company websites, and add toppings or sides or write special notes to the restaurant on GrubHub or Seamless. When a chain of gas stations called Sheetz introduced touchscreens for ordering sandwiches and snacks, “People discovered toppings they didn’t know we have,” the CEO Joe Sheetz told Fast Company*. “We cannot show a menu with all possible scenarios, but we can in touchscreens.” (People also tend to order more food when they order digitally, an added bonus for companies that support it.)

“Technology has enabled us to [customize orders] on a much more regular basis, so we’ve come to expect it,” Egan says.

Of course, there is such a thing as too many options—the classic paradox of choice. A novel-length menu is just as likely to stress you out as to fill you with a ballooning sense of possibility. To combat this problem, in recent years, many chain restaurants have started to pare down their menus to make them a little more bite-sized, if you will, as The Washington Post reported in 2014.

And research has shown that a large number of options makes people both less likely to pick something at all, and less satisfied with their choice if they do pick something. “It’s like me going into the cereal aisle in the grocery store,” Zellner says. “There’s an entire aisle of cereal. You can’t possibly pick a cereal. It takes more energy to do that. In general, it’s kind of aversive to people.”

Viewed this way, mass customization doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the rise of fast-casual restaurants, like Panera, Chipotle, and Sweetgreen, which allow you to create your own combo, burrito, and salad, respectively. Places like these walk you through the customization process without subjecting you to lengthy fine-print menus.

That also may just be easier for the restaurants. “There’s just so many people now who will go into a restaurant and say, “I can’t have gluten, dairy, or mushrooms, just because they don’t like them,” Zellner says. “To some degree it becomes easier to have a restaurant where you just have components. People can tell you what they want to put in it, you put it in, and you’re done.”

Once you’ve customized your Goldilocks order (you know, the one that’s juuuuust right), you may just stick with it and make it your usual. One way to think about it is that your Starbucks order is to some small degree a marker of your identity, like the clothes you wear or the TV shows you choose to watch. And the more options there are, the more identities are for sale. Each time you order in this case, “You’re reaffirming your identity,” Egan says.

But it may also be that once you’ve expended all that decision-making energy customizing your order the first time, you’re just going to stick with it to make things easier the next time.

“That’s a pretty common decision-making strategy,” Zellner says. “These places force you to make a decision initially, but after that the easiest thing to do is just to get what you’ve always gotten.”

The U.S. is a nation of snackers and restaurant-goers and delivery-orderers, as Egan writes in her book, as well as a nation of individualists, many of whom have some hang-ups about food. And so food companies bend over backwards to give you five different kinds of beans to put in your burrito, or to offer vegan or gluten-free or low-sugar options, or to make Maui Onion-flavored potato chips (not to be confused with Oʻahu Onion potato chips, get your head in the game!). But the irony there, Egan points out, is that “the most guaranteed way to really customize and personalize your food is to make it yourself.”

* A previous version of this story misidentified the Sheetz CEO as Jeff Sheetz. He is Joe Sheetz. We regret the error.