If you visit the Starbucks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, everything about the experience will be just like it would be in any of the other 31,000-plus stores around the world — except for one thing. The barista will not ask your name. Welcome to the “Stealthy Starbucks,” the place where America’s top spies get their caffeine fix.
Shortly after the Starbucks store opened, the supervisor noticed something peculiar. At every other location of the coffee giant, when the barista takes an order, he or she routinely asks for the customer’s name. They do this to speed up lines and assist with getting customers what they ordered. At Langley, when baristas ask the customer for a name, it seemed to make everyone very uncomfortable. But these aren’t just any customers. They are regulars at the CIA Starbucks.
The discomfort is not without justification. These customers work in the heart of the United States’ intelligence operation. Those who work at the Starbucks have to undergo a much more rigorous interview and background check procedure than your typical Starbucks employee. This is nothing, however, compared to what their customers have to go through.
Receipts at the CIA Starbucks cryptically say, “Store Number 1.” Frequent customer rewards (Star Rewards) are not used there, since the data could be compromised to reveal the identities of undercover operatives.
Despite the absence of customer rewards and the less-friendly tactic of not asking the customer for a name, this is one of the busiest Starbucks in the country. One employee said, “Obviously, we are caffeine-addicted personality types. ”
Getting in and out of the CIA complex is no small endeavor. Since employees can’t simply pop out for a quick coffee run, Starbucks has a bit of a monopoly at Spy Central.
This coffee shop looks much like any other Starbucks, with blond wooden chairs and tables, blueberry and raspberry scones lining the bakery cases, and with progressive folk rock floating from the speakers. What you won’t see, however, are customers looking at their smartphones while they sip their mochas. For security reasons, employees must leave their phones in their cars.
Instead, you may witness a on interview for agents looking to advance within the CIA. The chief of the team that helped find Osama Bin Laden, for instance, recruited a key deputy for the effort at the Starbucks.
“Coffee culture is just huge in the military, and many in the CIA come from that culture ,” said Vince Houghton, an intelligence expert and curator at the International Spy Museum. “This is a population who have to be alert and spend hours poring through documents. If they miss a word, people can die.”
The nine baristas who work here are frequently briefed about security risks. “If someone is really interested in where they work and asks too many questions, then they need to tell us,” the supervisor said.
One barista applied to work for a catering company that services federal buildings in the region. When she was offered a job, she was told she would be working in food services in Langley. On her first morning of work she put a location in her GPS and nothing came up. She called the person who had hired her to get better directions. “Before I knew it, I realized I was now working for the Starbucks at the CIA,” she said.
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Read more fun facts about the CIA.