Starbucks as cargo cult

Greg Beato’s take on Starbucks in the new Reason is right on, acknowledging the company’s successes while recognizing that its attempts to reinvent itself with shops like the undercover 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea won’t restore its reputation as an innovator:

For all their ostensible authenticity, such adventures in interior design cannot match the truly radical act of installing espresso machines in bank lobbies. Like Seattle’s other great cultural export from the early 1990s, Nirvana, Starbucks has always been most vital, most interesting, most revolutionary when at its most commercial. [...]

At [15th Avenue Coffee and Tea], the quest to cultivate highbrow customers continues. There’s a wall covered with excerpts from Plato’s dialogues. Blended drinks are banned from the premises, and you can safely assume that Bearista Bears, the highly sought-after plush toys that Starbucks has been selling since 1997, won’t ever appear here either.

But if Starbucks really hopes to re-establish its authority as an innovative, forward-thinking trailblazer, it should perhaps use its next experimental venue to honor its heritage as the first chain to take gourmet coffee culture beyond the narrow boundaries of traditional coffeehouse values and aesthetics. Imagine a place with matching chairs, clean tables, beverages that look like ice cream sundaes, Norah Jones on the sound system, and absolutely no horrid paintings from local artists decorating the walls. A place, that is, exactly like Starbucks!

I walked by 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea on my most recent visit to Seattle. It looks like a nice shop, but it’s a tiny part of the Starbucks empire and the coffee, of course, is still Starbucks. In a city that’s full of great coffee shops I’m not sure why anyone would seek it out.

On a related note, it looks like Starbucks is about to launch pour over brewers in some of its stores. There’s probably no better example of the company becoming an imitator than this. Pour over bars have become one of the leading trends in quality-oriented coffee shops as they shift toward brewing individual cups on demand. Part of the reason they’ve become so popular is that the high-tech Clover machine was bought up by Starbucks and taken off the market, forcing those shops to turn to alternative brewing methods. So it’s funny to see Starbucks copying low-tech pour overs now too. It’s as if the company believes installing all the accoutrements of an indie cafe will bring in the coffee lovers when its real problem is that it doesn’t have the systems in place to match the quality of its smaller, nimble competitors.

Nonetheless I hope that Starbucks succeeds at generating interest in individually brewed coffee; that would be a great step forward, though I find it hard to imagine that there will be a mass consumer shift from drip to pour over. I hope too that the customers who are introduced to the method at Starbucks will also try it at a shops with greater passion for the product and lighter roast profiles.

(And if you can’t tell, I’m still bitter about losing the Clover, which I’ve always preferred to pour overs anyway.)

[Pour over link via Starbucks Gossip.]

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