Today’s headline for The Seattle Times was Starbucks must find lost “soul,” Schultz says.
The article quotes a February 14th memo from Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, to the employees of Starbucks. In the memo Schultz says:
…we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.
He goes on to talk about past decisions to use automatic espresso machines and to package coffee in “flavor locked bags.”
…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. This, coupled with the need for fresh roasted coffee in every North America city and every international market, moved us toward the decision and the need for flavor locked packaging… We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost? The loss of aroma — perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores; the loss of our people scooping fresh coffee from the bins and grinding it fresh in front of the customer, and once again stripping the store of tradition and our heritage?
The article reports that the employees generally approve of the message.
A Seattle-area barista who has worked at Starbucks for six years said she’s glad Schultz is concerned.
“I agree that there’s a diluting of the Starbucks experience,” she said, largely because some workers are not passionate about coffee or service.
As the company grows, she said she sees more workers who are “just kind of there because they want a job, and it’s kind of cool to work for Starbucks these days.”
She said she’s glad Starbucks switched to automatic espresso machines, even though some customers complain the coffee does not taste as good. The old manual machines were “really, really hard on your body,” she said.
I can’t say that I’ve ever worked and espresso machine for four or more hours at a stretch, but I can think of a few jobs that would be much harder on your body.
But that’s beside the point…
I’ve lived in Seattle for over 21 years, and when I first started working downtown, there were two Starbucks that I knew of in Seattle: The original one in Pike Place Market, and one at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Spring Street. I used to go there for coffee pretty often. That was way back when they actually sold more coffee than milk.
I liked their coffee then, and I like their coffee now. They sell a great variety of quality beans from all over the world. But as Schultz pointed out in his memo, the stores used to smell like coffee when you walked in the door. They don’t anymore…
So can Starbucks regain its soul? I doubt it. It’s become too big. Their patrons have expectations of it that the stores might only be able to meet by staying much like they are. Their customers expect their latte’s to be made quickly, and they expect a large variety of fresh beans. It would be difficult for them to go back to hand-made lattes and hand-bagged beans and maintain the profit margins their investors expect.
Starbucks is a huge corporation. We can’t expect it to have a “soul.”