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.]


Starbucks’ fast, hard fall

Early last year Starbucks took a few steps in the right direction to regain the reputation they’d tarnished when their focus shifted from quality coffee and espresso to Frappuccinos and retail products. They were retraining baristas on milk and shots, introduced a lighter roast, and rocked the coffee world by buying the Coffee Equipment Company (makers of the Clover brewer). These were positive steps to repair the brand.

That’s all changed in the recession. The company has closed several hundred stores and laid off thousands of employees. It dropped the quality control measure of pulling shots into glasses. It introduced combo meals, er, “pairings.” And now this:

Premium java giant Starbucks is venturing into what some would consider lowbrow territory with a soluble-coffee product called Via, according to three executives familiar with the matter.

Starbucks declined to comment on the launch, which is said to be a long-term pet project of Chief Executive Howard Schultz and as such will get a significant marketing push.

Starbucks will begin testing the soluble coffee — a term that conjures up images of instant brands such as Folgers, Sanka and Brim — by selling it in Starbucks cafes as early as next month. It’s unclear as yet whether the company will also extend the product to supermarkets, where it already has a presence with ground Starbucks-branded coffee.

A corporate memo to employees describes it this way:

We are hosting exclusive events next week in New York and other cities where we will unveil the product. We have been working on this project for over 20 years, and have a patent pending on the technology that enables us to absolutely replicate the taste of Starbucks coffee in an instant form. And as Howard has always said, “The proof is in the cup.”

Ouch. I realize Starbucks is in a bad way and Schultz’ goal of making his company the equal of leading indie shops was always a pipe dream, but this is completely throwing in the towel. There’s just no way to market your stores’ expertly sourced and roasted beans, high-tech brewing equipment, and skilled baristas while telling customers they can “absolutely replicate” the taste experience at home with an instant formula. This might be profitable in the short-term (SBUX stock is up today, in fact), but it’s brand suicide. Employees are justifiably furious; check the comments at Starbucks Gossip for some of their reactions.

I’m not writing this to gloat. As I’ve written before, I think Starbucks has helped advance the specialty coffee industry and I’m glad to see any shop, whether a corporate behemoth or a small independent, raise customers’ expectations. It would have been great if Starbucks continued in that role. Now, however, I’m more ticked than ever that this instant coffee company has exclusive access to the Clover. So much more could be done with it in better hands.

On the upside, an instant coffee cupping could make for a fun blog post.


Precious coffee policies

McDonald’s will ice your espresso for you. Apparently it’s bad enough that they focus their marketing on the iced drinks. (It’s a lame unlinkable Flash site, so click on the “intervention” tab.)

In related news, Starbucks just launched its Clover brewers into San Francisco stores. This gets me neither wi-fi nor good coffee, but would probably solve the electrical problem. I’m almost tempted to check it out and see how nicely the Clover highlights the char notes.

[Via Starbucks Gossip.]

Coffee without comfort
Your precious coffee policy
The Clover rollout


No more Clovers

I’m sure it’s been official for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve seen it confirmed:

Starbucks is willing to share custody, however, of the 250 [Clover] machines already out there, plus maintain and repair them, but it won’t sell any more Clovers to independent cafés. The company has already pulled the plug on CloverNet, the online database that tracks sales, maintenance, and brewing preferences for Clover owners.

That’s unfortunate. Despite all the hype, the real beauty of the Clover wasn’t in how it brews coffee, but in how it could reliably bring out clean flavors and refocus attention on the beans: their origins, their roast profiles, the way they were processed, etc. Putting Starbucks beans into it isn’t going to make Starbucks coffee magically delicious. It’s a great tool that now won’t ever live up to its full potential.

The Clover rollout
The Evil Empire just bought Clover!


Blue Bottle’s new machine

Looks like I need to go to San Francisco again. The New York Times reports that Blue Bottle — makers of the best espresso I’ve ever tasted — have a very cool new coffee brewer from Japan:

With its brass-trimmed halogen heating elements, glass globes and bamboo paddles, the new contraption that is to begin making coffee this week at the Blue Bottle Café here looks like a machine from a Jules Verne novel, a 19th-century vision of the future.

Called a siphon bar, it was imported from Japan at a total cost of more than $20,000. The cafe has the only halogen-powered model in the United States, and getting it here required years of elliptical discussions with its importer, Jay Egami of the Ueshima Coffee Company.

It’s an elaborate series of vacuum brewers, heated by halogen lamps. It looks fantastic.

The article also gives a lot of space to discussing the Clover, the high-end single cup brewer that’s proliferating across the country.