One siren, 3 billion cups

I won’t defend Starbucks for burning their coffee, but I will defend them against the charge that they don’t do enough to promote recycling of the 3 billion paper cups the company goes through each year. Over at the Examiner I take a look at some of the obstacles to finding uses for all those cups and wonder whether it’s worth making the effort.


CA Starbucks extend smoking ban outdoors

A commenter notes that Starbucks stores in California are prohibiting smoking outside their stores:

Starting Monday, Starbucks customers are welcome to sit outside and sip a while — as long as they don’t light up. The international coffee giant is extending its ban on indoor smoking to outdoor patios and dining areas in California.

The change was prompted by an increasing number of communities that have enacted smoking prohibitions in outdoor dining areas.

This is their right obviously, though I would have preferred their hand not be forced by excessive regulations. Previous coverage of Starbucks and smoking policies here and here.


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.]


Aroma-Schutz durch rauchfreien Raum

Jim Romenesko at Starbucks Gossip links to a blog dedicated to replacing the aroma of tobacco smoke outside of Starbucks stores with the sweet smell of self-righteousness:

A blog established to encourage Starbucks (SBUX) to stop supporting smoking at their stores. SBUX, where it is legal, allows smoking outside of their stores. Not a very “socially conscious” policy. Not to mention, how does a business so closely tied to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure (breast cancer), reconcile allowing smoking at their stores?

Yikes, giving people a place to smoke, even if that place is outside, now detracts from a business’s social consciousness? And wanting to find cures for cancer now requires taking control over customers’ personal behavior? Obviously Starbucks is a private business and if they decide to ban smoking outside their stores they have every right to do so, but:

1) It might be more reasonable to ban it only in some stores, such as those with small urban storefronts. Suburban stores with large patios could easily accommodate smokers and non-smokers.

2) A guy smoking a cigarette in open air isn’t going to give anybody cancer. He might be annoying but so is the guy with the portable radio, the guy who hasn’t bathed in three days, and the friends chatting too loudly about their sex lives. In a civil society we learn when to tolerate such things and when to ask the store to intervene and it’s not clear that a chain-wide ban is needed to deal with them. In any case, allowing people to smoke outside where they do harm only to themselves is perfectly compatible with raising money for cancer research.

3) This blogger’s “campaign” is part of the trend to demonize smokers, portraying their behavior not just as unhealthy but as anti-social. This kind of thinking is what has led to extending legislated smoking bans from indoor spaces to places like beaches, golf courses, and public parks, where it’s absurd to claim there are any deleterious health effects from secondhand smoke. Starbucks might reasonably decide that forbidding smoking would be good for business but this would not put them on moral high ground.

4) Yes, it’s rude to light up next to other people without asking their permission but where else are smokers supposed to go? Now that they’ve been exiled from indoor businesses, even from tobacco shops in some jurisdictions, one can understand why they feel entitled to the outdoor spaces they have remaining.

5) Starbucks actually deserves great credit for their non-smoking policies. As I wrote about in 2006, they’ve been a pioneer in international markets for creating smokefree cafes in countries where these were predicted to fail. (The title of this post is a translation of the signs they posted in Austria explaining their policy: “aroma protection through a smoke-free space.”) They’ve probably helped change expectations for American cafes too. Given all this, it’s a bit spiteful to call them socially irresponsible for accommodating their smoking customers outside.

6) Sitting outside on a summer day with coffee and a cigar can be a wonderful experience. If you can find a place to do so where you won’t impose on other customers I highly recommend it.


Starbucks vindicated

Last year Starbucks took a lot of heat in the press for an $86 million ruling against them for taking tips from baristas and giving them to management. In reality the “managers” in question were shift supervisors doing essentially the same job as baristas and customers leaving tips reasonably expected them to get their share. I defended Starbucks at the time and I’m glad to see that a California appeals court has reached the same conclusion [full decision in .DOC format here):

Specifically, the undisputed facts show: (1) the vast majority of the time shift supervisors and baristas perform the same jobs; (2) these employees rotate jobs and work as a “team” throughout the day; (3) customers intend that their tips placed in the collective tip boxes collectively reward all of these service employees; and (4) Starbucks’s manner of dividing the collective tip boxes among the service employees (based on the time worked by each employee) is fair and equitable. […]

Because the trial court’s interpretation of section 351 was not supported by the statutory language and led to a result contrary to the fundamental purpose of the statutory scheme, it is one that the Legislature could not have intended. We reverse the judgment in its entirety.

Cue allegation from amazingly persistent commenter Gary that the appeals court must have been bribed by Starbucks in 3… 2…

[Via Starbucks Gossip.]


Greening the green giant

Starbucks’ new “Global Responsibility Report” is now online. It’s an interesting example of corporate transparency (or greenwashing depending on your level of skepticism) and provides some insight into how difficult it is for a company that size to go green, even when it wants to. Encouraging recycling, for example, isn’t as simple as just putting out proper bins:

The world of garbage and recycling is complicated. We’d like the solution to be as simple as putting recycling bins in all of our stores. Unfortunately, residential garbage collection and recycling is usually controlled by city or county governments who either manage it directly or contract it out to private haulers. These local authorities can provide subsidies and sometimes mandate whether or not the haulers have to collect paper, glass, plastics or compostable waste.

For commercial recycling (such as at a Starbucks store), the items that get collected are almost always driven by the open market. This means that if the haulers can get a good price for recyclable materials (cardboard, glass, plastic, food-contaminated paper products), they’ll collect it from local businesses. But if they can’t get a good price – or when there’s not a critical mass of materials to collect – they may not collect them because there’s no financial benefit for them.

One other significant challenge is the fact that half of our stores are located in leased spaces where we don’t control waste collection and recycling. Our landlords often determine whether tenants can recycle based on space availability and commercial recycling services.

Paper cups are another difficult problem. According to the report, they make up half the paper the company buys in a year. An easy change is encouraging stores to return to using ceramic mugs for in-store drinks, which would be nice regardless of the environmental impact. A harder change is making the cups themselves more environmentally friendly. Starbucks deserves from being a pioneer here, putting a lot of effort into innovation to get cups with recycled paper content approved by the FDA. From an old Marketplace story:

So Starbucks asked its suppliers to take up a new crusade: Get the FDA’s approval for a beverage cup that contained recycled paper, not just on the outside, but the inside as well.

GEORGE MATTHEWS: We worked on this for about four years.

George Matthews is executive VP at Mississippi River Corporation, one of Starbucks’ suppliers. His pulp company had to prove to the FDA it was safe to drink from a recycled-content cup. That meant eliminating any potentially harmful substances from the high-grade office paper in recycled pulp.

MATTHEWS: The new regulations that the FDA had come out with required testing to be done to really infinitesimal limits. So we not only had to test to those limits but in many cases had to develop the test protocol itself, because it hadn’t been done before.

The FDA finally approved. Starbucks is now selling coffee in paper cups with 10 percent post-consumer fiber.

The cups themselves are often not recyclable though because of their plastic liners. According to the report, that’s the next technological hurdle SBUX is trying to overcome.

A technological advance I’d like to see? Not using a stupid Flash webpage that I can’t link to directly. So if you’d like to customize your own report, go here and start from scratch.

[Via Starbucks Gossip and Coffee City.]

Cups and councils


Taste-testing Via

A Wall Street Journal reporter did a taste test. She admits to not having a sophisticated coffee palate. Her verdict: not quite as good as freshly brewed Starbucks coffee, but significantly better than other instant coffee.

The big question is how management decided making instant coffee would be a good idea in the first place. Answer: A guy walked into the Pike Place location and had the barista sample a version he’d concocted:

Mr. Schultz then said he wanted to tell me a story. In 1993, a man named Don Valencia walked into the original Starbucks store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Mr. Valencia was an immunologist who was a fan of Starbucks coffee. On his visit to the store, he gave a soluble coffee substance to a barista, told her to mix it with water and taste it. Mr. Valencia had created the concoction himself using Starbucks beans so he could drink Starbucks on camping trips. The barista was blown away by the taste, Mr. Schultz told me.

Two days later, Mr. Schultz invited Mr. Valencia to come to his office so Mr. Schultz could try the creation. Mr. Schultz was so impressed he hired Mr. Valencia to lead the company’s research and development department. That soluble extract morphed into the flavoring for Frappuccinos, ice creams and other coffee-flavored products Starbucks makes.

The reporter also explains some of the process that went into it:

From Mr. Schultz’s office, I went down the hall to the coffee tasting room and met with Anthony Carroll, Ann-Marie Kurtz and Andrew Linnemann — three coffee experts who helped develop the product. The process starts by roasting and brewing coffee from Starbucks beans, reducing that to a concentrate and then removing the water so they’re left with an intensely flavored coffee powder. Mr. Linnemann explained how they went through about 700 versions to find one that wouldn’t have the bad attributes of most instant coffees — hints of paper, cardboard and malt. He and his colleagues tried adding coffee oils to make it thicker, but it wouldn’t stay fresh. Fine-grinding the beans created so much heat that it burned off the flavor of the coffee.

Improving the taste of instant coffee is a good trick. Not destroying their brand image in the process would be an even better one.


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


Coffee without comfort

Dan Drezner examines the ads for the new “McCafe” coffee counters recently introduced by McDonald’s and finds them wanting. His observations are spot on: while the male ad is predictable and somewhat funny, the female version is insultingly out of touch. Women can’t be knowledgeable about geography? Liking jazz is a pretense? Starbucks still plays anything besides the CDs they’re hawking and the women there don’t sport skirts? It’s as if the marketers who wrote this have never been to a Starbucks or interacted with a woman whose intellect outshines her, um, knees.

The ads really say more about the McDonaldsification of Starbucks than the Starbucksification of McDonald’s. The atmosphere ridiculed in these commercials is part of Starbucks’ aspirational appeal. Starbucks is supposed to be the trendy place to go for great coffee, but consumers are increasingly aware that’s no longer the case. By expanding so rapidly and cutting so many corners in its quest to maximize efficiency, the chain started competing with McDonald’s on the burger joint’s home turf. Now that Mickey D’s is fighting back, Starbucks is in a weak position to respond.

McDonald’s knows that there’s a huge market for decent quality coffee-related beverages (I’m not sure McDonald’s whip cream and sprinkle-laden mochas really count as “espresso drinks”) for people on the go. What McDonald’s can’t duplicate is what it shows in the commercials: the warm and welcoming environment of a coffee shop. Who would want to read a book or hold a leisurely conversation in the sterile confines of a fast food restaurant? You can imagine the advertising agency brainstorming about how to make McDonald’s look inviting, giving up, and deciding to mock the sophistication of its rivals instead. It’s Republican-style advertising brought to the coffee world. Luckily for McDonald’s, Starbucks has already done the hard work of getting people accustomed to paying three bucks for coffee without taking time to enjoy comforting amenities.

Dunkin’ Donuts has shown that a low-brow chain can compete with Starbucks on coffee, so McDonald’s is following suit. Starbucks could potentially respond by refocusing on atmosphere, but investors want bigger in-store sales, not people lazing around in comfy purple chairs. The company is already trying to get back to its roots and focus on quality, but boutique roasters and indie shops have them nailed on that. It’s a bad time to be Howard Schultz.

[Via Kids Prefer Cheese.]


Coffee, sex, and Starbucks

“When a woman gives a man coffee, it is a way of showing her desire.” According to the Economist, that’s the theme of a new novel exploring the intersection of coffee, love, and sex.

For some reason it’s never worked out this way with my girlfriends. Maybe they just don’t appreciate the “constructive criticism.”

In other coffee news, Reason.TV’s Michael Moynihan recently examined the growth of indie shops and the decline of the once unstoppable Starbucks. Pleasant surprise: my friend Jocelyne from Open City’s sister restaurant Tryst explains how the shop has thrived in the face of competition. Click over here to watch it.


Indie shops take on the green giant

A few years ago it was common to hear lamentations about Starbucks moving in and crushing the neighborhood independent shops. An article in yesterday’s Seattle Times points out that perception is catching up to reality with a more balanced take on Starbucks’ influence:

Collectively, independent and small-chain coffeehouses have the largest share of coffee and doughnut sales in the U.S., with 34 percent of the market in 2006, according to a new report from the Chicago research firm Mintel. Starbucks has the next largest share at 29 percent.

“When you talk to all the detractors whose critique is that Starbucks ruined the culture of coffeehouses, you’d get the impression there were all these coffeehouses and then Starbucks came in and destroyed them,” said Kim Fellner, a longtime national labor and community organizer whose book “Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino” came out last month.

While there are some examples of Starbucks putting independents out of business, she said, “you find far more where people who look at Starbucks and say, ‘They’re being successful. I could be, too.’ ”

The popularity of Starbucks has helped spread coffeehouse culture beyond university communities and Italian neighborhoods, Fellner said.

Starbucks has fallen on hard times lately and lost its focus on coffee quality a long time ago, but the company deserves great credit for raising the bar for American coffee culture and bringing espresso drinks and single origin beans to a mass audience. Many of today’s indie shop customers got their first taste of decent cappuccino at a Starbucks.

I had a similar take on the company in a post titled “A libertarian goes to Starbucks.” For a more in-depth assessment, Taylor Clark’s Starbucked is a fun, informative history.

[Via Pasteboard.]


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!


More Starbucks skullduggery

Finding fault with chain restaurants’ nutritional information has become a new trend. The latest offender is Starbucks. Blogger Ms. Bitch Cakes notes:

When the Peach Apple Tart nutrition information became available, I posted it here. One of the comments in that blog made me realize the nutrition information couldn’t possibly be right- It stated:

120 calories (total)
12 grams of fat

I can’t believe that I missed the inconsistency of that information- I know that 1 gram of fat is 9 calories. If the 12 grams of fat are accurate, the FAT CALORIES ALONE are 108- making it impossible for the TOTAL CALORIES to equal 120.

After she wrote them, the company revised the calorie count to 280, more than twice the original listing.

This blog previously considered misleading calorie counts here and here, cast doubt on New York’s chain restaurant mandate here, and caught Starbucks with a misleading roast date here.

[Via Starbucks Gossip.]


Starbucks skullduggery

Starbucks Pike Place Roast

About halfway through my commute this morning I realized that I’d left my fresh bag of Counter Culture’s Kuta coffee sitting in my kitchen. I was tempted to turn back, but not wanting to be too late for work and knowing that Starbucks’ new Pike Place Blend is at least drinkable, I decided to be a good employee and pick up coffee at the Evil Empire instead.

Normally when I go to a Starbucks I’ll only get brewed coffee, since the bags of beans aren’t marked with a roast date and there’s no telling how old they are. But waiting in line today I saw that they had half-pound bags of Pike Place for sale, and with a roast date hand-written right on the package. “Freshly roasted on: 5-12-08,” it said.

“Wow, that’s fresh,” I thought. “Way to go, Starbucks.” But wait a second. Isn’t today the 12th? I’m no roasting expert, but I really doubt these beans were roasted in the middle of the night, cooled, packaged without resting, delivered to a store in DC, and placed out for sale by 9:30 am.

So what’s going on here? Isolated mistake or pervasive skullduggery? Anyone else notice impossible roasting dates on Starbucks coffee?

[Thanks to Caleb for photographing with his pricey Apple impulse purchase.]

Update 5/13/08: Former barista Baylen says in the comments: “The date on the bag is the date they scoop the beans in the store, not the roast date. Not sure why it says roast, but it’s disingenuous.”

Second update: Mystery definitively solved. Thanks, StarbucksGossip. The label applied to my bag was made for the 5 lbs. bags. The smaller bags are supposed to have “scooped on” labels instead. I’m glad to know this was an innocent mistake, but as Jim points out, who the hell cares when a coffee was scooped? If they have the roast date available, they should just put that on the label.