Saturday, February 24, 2007


More on espresso theater...

So apparently Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz had a heartfelt/Jerry Maguire/let's-take-a-hard-look-in-the-mirror moment this week; he sent out a memo to all of Starbucks' top executives warning that the Starbucks experience may be undergoing some "commoditization."

I felt compelled to blog about it because Mr. Schultz does some belly-aching that is quite similar to some of my own (from a mere few weeks ago - maybe Howard Schultz has been reading my blog...? HAHAHAHAHA!!)

Here's what Mr. Schultz had to say:
"Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead [sic] to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand... when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca [sic] machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista."

You can find the whole memo on (I can't figure out how to link directly to the memo, but go to the site and scroll down to Feb. 23, 2007 - you'll find it.) As an aside, can I spend a second telling you how much I loooooove Starbucks gossip? I originally started checking it out because of my film, but it has become my guilty pleasure (especially now that I don't have time to watch General Hospital as often as I used to... HAHAHAHAHAHA!!) I mean, it's obviously a good source of news. But the really good part is the comments, many of which are posted anonymously by Starbucks employees. It's fascinating and frequently hilarious.

But back to my original point; I'll be very curious to see what comes of this. And I wonder if Starbucks might be too far down that commoditization road to ever come back. Large institutions seem to have a kind of internal logic all their own, and once they get going, well... it's kind of like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you've squeezed it, you know? What's Starbucks going to do? Shut down all the stores next to McDonald's and Walmart and Jiffy Lube? Start training all their baristas to actually understand espresso? Can they afford that? I recently spoke with someone who was a Starbucks barista back in the mid-90's, and he told me with some pride that he'd had 60 hours of training on how to make espresso drinks prior to ever working in a Starbucks store (which was far more than the standard 24 hours of training a typical Starbucks barista received at the time). I guess that is something special in comparison to other companies whose training is exclusively on-the-job, but I was mentally comparing this to the baristas I'd met in Italy, many of whom apprenticed with more experienced baristas and/or attended hotel and restaurant school and "majored" in being a barista prior to ever actually making espresso for anyone. If that's the level of quality (nevermind romance and theatre) that Starbucks is aiming for, I'll be very curious to see how they can put that into action on such a huge scale. According to a recent conference call with investment analysts, Starbucks opened an average of 8 stores a day last quarter. They literally hire HUNDREDS of new employees every single day. And the truth is that nobody stays a barista for long in this country. Evidently, Starbucks manages to retain employees much longer than other fast-food outlets do, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that they retain baristas for an average of a year and a half. (Maybe someone out there can confirm or correct this...?) That's nothing; Mr. 60-hours-of-training may have gotten pretty good at making drinks eventually, but it wasn't long before he moved on to his "real" career. And honestly, the longevity issue is fundamentally a cultural one. It is only partially under Starbucks' control. We're a culture of people who don't view food service as a viable career option; we just don't. Some third wavers are doing their best to change that. Eileen at Ritual recently told me that a key part of the way they do business involves paying their baristas well above a typical food service wage and seeking out employees who are passionate about coffee the way artists are passionate about their work (i.e., they can't live without it.) But it's been my observation that even in the tiny world of third wave coffee shops, the really good baristas move on to something else within a few years. They may stay in the coffee business - as trainers or by opening their own shops - but they're not necessarily making drinks every morning.

So... I don't know. I'm deeply curious about how Starbucks might attempt to bring "romance and theatre" back into their stores. And I'm even more curious about whether this might, at any point, result in better-tasting cappuccinos.


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