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Starbucks Forgot Its Story

As I sit here in my new Seattle home, drinking the latte I made myself, yesterday’s news of more Starbucks layoffs is still fresh in my head. As a former Starbucks barista, the news seems a little shocking. How could a company that is so big and that seemed to be doing so well run into this kind of trouble?

I’ve heard people around here say that Starbucks grew too much too fast. Maybe. But that doesn’t fully capture the nuance of why Starbucks finds itself in this position. With the resources that the corporation has, it could well afford to open the stores it opened–as long as they were as profitable as the old stores. Scaling up the physical business was not the issue for Starbucks. Starbucks ran into trouble when their product wouldn’t scale up that quickly. And, no, I’m not talking about coffee.

If you think the success of Starbucks is about good coffee, you have probably never had good coffee. But that is just it, Starbucks doesn’t exist to serve good coffee to coffee connoisseurs. Regardless of what the too many idiotic business success books say, the core Starbucks story is not about happy crappy employees or good service or customization or even the (gag me) “Starbucks experience.” Taking the coffee shop experience to people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a coffee shop is what Starbucks is all about–whether or not they know it. And, for a long time, they were good at it.

So, what happened? It’s my guess that, in order to grow as rapidly as they wanted to, Starbucks was forced to dumb down the role of the barista. Part of that coffee house experience that Starbucks sells is a handcrafted drink by a real barista. However, when you replace real espresso machines with fully automated ones, the role of the barista all but disappears. Now, in order to be a Starbucks barista, all you have to be able to do is memorize how many pumps of syrup go into the different sizes of drinks and know how to push two buttons–one for the automatic milk steamer and one for the espresso shots. Starbucks made the process so simple, that the hand-crafting of drinks disappeared. Now, people pay the same price for a fully-automated cup of coffee at Starbucks as they do for a drink made by a real barista in a real coffee house.

You know the process has gotten simple when McDonald’s joins the fray. If all it takes to be a barista is to push a couple of buttons, then why shouldn’t Mickey D’s get in on the profits? Honestly, it will be a cold day in Hell when I get a cappuccino from McDonald’s. However, I must admit the drinks are probably not that different from the over-roasted, often shots-not-calibrated-correctly espresso drinks I sometimes get at Starbucks.

Being more like McDonald’s and less like a iconic Seattle coffee shop is certainly not the Starbucks story that made them successful. I think that they now find themselves at a crossroads. Do they continue to make everything as efficient as possible in hopes of more growth in the future? If they do, the Starbucks brand will be changed. Do they try to remember and recapture that simple story of exporting the Seattle coffee house to the rest of the world? If they do, it will be a more complicated and labor intensive process in order to grow.

Even though I will always choose a local coffee shop over a chain, I hope Starbucks does recapture its story. I would encourage Starbucks to begin to build new stores with the old espresso machines and train the baristas to be real baristas. Maybe they won’t be pouring latte art, but in towns like my small, rural hometown in Tennessee, to have a real barista making a them a great drink would be an education and a treat for people who would have not otherwise experienced coffee in this way. And who knows, maybe those people would become lifelong customers along the way?