This Longhorn has Visited Nearly 15,000 Starbucks Around the World

Winter never cared much for coffee.

In college, he wasn’t like his other classmates, hopped up on caffeine just to get through the day. When the then-fledgling coffee chain Starbucks first made its way to Austin in 1994, Winter, BA ’95, barely noticed. In fact, he wouldn’t step into his first Starbucks until about a year later in his hometown of Houston. He had no idea that by 2019, he would have visited nearly 15,000 Starbucks—14,914 at press time to be exact.

Winter, who legally acquired his singular name in 2006, is a 47-year-old freelance computer software engineer. He has created an impossible challenge for himself: to visit every Starbucks in the world. He has traveled more than one million miles, visiting the coffee chain at locations in every U.S. state, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia and estimates that he has spent roughly $150,000 on coffee, air fare, gas, and other “starbucking”—that’s the name he created for this practice—related expenses.

“I never thought the project would get to this point,” Winter tells me over the phone. He’s calling from Rochester, New York, in his car, which doubles as his home. Sometimes he works in the offices of his contractors, and other times he works in coffee shops and libraries. It’s easier to get from Starbucks to Starbucks this way. “I’m as homeless as it gets,” Winter says. “Being mobile is how I want it.”

Winter’s Starbucks obsession began around 1997, when he was living in Plano creating order forms for online catalogues post-graduation. At the time there were only about 1,500 existing Starbucks. (As of 2018, there were 29,324 Starbucks around the world, but that number changes often.) Starbucks locations were sprouting up frequently, and he spent many days hanging at the nearest one making friends in his new city. One day, something triggered the idea for his mission in his head. “It’s part of my collector mentality,” he explains. “As a kid I collected comic books, coins, stamps—there’s something hardwired in me to collect things.”

For the last 22 years, Winter has been the subject of many people’s fascination. In 2006, he was the star of a documentary called Starbucking by Bill Tangeman that followed Winter over the course of a year. News outlets have written articles about him since as early as 2002. A headline in The Palm Beach Post from 2007 reads, “Is he off his bean?” And recently he’s been featured a few times on the podcast Time Crisis, hosted by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig.

Though the Starbucks company reached out sometime around 2002 to show Winter support, gifting him memorabilia and a thank you letter, the coffee powerhouse has kept its distance. “It’s been hands off since then and understandably so,” Winter says. “I can be a little eccentric and a corporation has to be really careful about who they associate with.”

There are some rules to Winter’s starbucking. At every Starbucks, he must have a caffeinated drink (usually it’s just a free sample-size cup of plain coffee). He doesn’t count Starbucks that are licensed out to operators outside of the company, for example a Starbucks within a Target. And in recent years, he’s become more concerned with his carbon footprint. He no longer drives for hours on end, wasting gas and hopping from one Starbucks to the next.

“I try to combine starbucking with other purposes,” he says. “Out of concern for the environment, I am committed to bundling my trips into four-to-five-month stretches.” If he goes on a starbucking excursion, he makes sure to see family or spend time exploring his latest passion: finding independent coffee roasters. (The Starbucks coffee just doesn’t cut it anymore. “Back in ’95, I had no frame of reference for quality coffee,” Winter says. “I thought Starbucks was really good. But as it has expanded, the quality has objectively gone down.” )

As might be expected, his lifestyle has come with its share of challenges. He lost the one serious relationship he’s had, attributing the breakup to starbucking. “She loved to travel but we had to spend time doing what she wanted to do,” he says. “It couldn’t just be about the starbucking.” Winter’s father never approved of the life he’s built. Though his mother has always been proud of her son’s small level of celebrity, Winter had to give up his home base in Houston when she had to be moved into a nursing home in Panama, his parents’ home country.

Somewhere along the way, Winter’s challenge became more than just a checklist. It’s been a means of growth for him. He is grateful for the places he’s seen—his favorites have been Japan, Hong Kong, London, and Paris—and the people he has met through his project. “I fell in love with the travel aspect,” he says. Prior to starbucking, Winter says he wasn’t one to make friends easily, noting that he hasn’t spoken to anyone from his time at UT since graduating. Through his travels, he says he’s learned to make hundreds of connections and friends around the world.

“Winter is probably the most focused person I know,” says Sebastian Birr, a 27-year-old German native who has visited nearly 1,300 Starbucks locations. He met Winter in 2009 after he got the idea to visit all the stores in San Francisco, where he attended an English school for three weeks. While locating stores online, he came across Winter and his mission. He decided to reach out and the two have been friends since, meeting up in Germany, Budapest, Hungary, Slovakia, and Boston for starbucking purposes. “Everything Winter does is truly passionate,” he says, “and starbucking is full of self discipline needed for visiting so many stores. He can resist comfort and live and travel with restrictions.”

Winter is a realist. He knows making it to every existing Starbucks isn’t doable. With the company’s constant growth, and his limited funds, and limited access to certain countries, “It’s effectively impossible,” he says. He estimates he will definitely hit around 20,000 Starbucks in his lifetime—“more than that, actually”— and hopes to make it to every country.

Before we say goodbye, I ask Winter how long he plans to continue his starbucking adventure. His answer is simple, immediate, and sure: “Until I die.”

 
 
 

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