Tuesday, December 06, 2005

what starbucks does well

i had a dream about starbucks last night. actually, i was dreaming about my old starbucks. the one i used to manage...across the street and down a block or two from central park in manhattan. i can never figure out how dreams do that: how they trick you into "remembering" that your starbucks is across the street and down a block or two from central park when in reality it is in suburban philadelphia.

anyways, i was dreaming about "my store" which had changed considerably in appearance since i was there a few months ago--they had gotten these killer aged wooden floors, great sconce lighting, etc. stuff you would never see in a real starbucks, unless it was some kind of flagship store in a new market. as i was greeting all the old partners i knew i realized what starbucks does best...its people. in my dreams i was flooded with joy at seeing those familiar faces, remembering the times we had shared and just enjoying each other for a while...i was only visiting "new york," after all.

there's a lot of talk in the independent coffee world about the lacklusterness of starbucks baristas; how they're little more than skilled monkeys with no appreciation for the art of espresso. i can say for sure that i don't really care what people say about starbuck baristas. while there are definitely way more like that than not, at my little corner of the world the baristas were top notch. and that's not just dreaming. and why? training. most sbux managers don't train right. they don't utilize the absolutely massive amount of training materials available to them. just think about all the resources a company like big green can bring to bear on...any area they want. there are tons of training materials that can be utilized. but even aside that, most managers failed to execute the most basic training programs required of them, causing forgettable baristas and a forgettable starbucks experience. i have had many of those experiences in my two short months here in san antonio. starbucks are just too "busy" (running around in circles "busy") with their starbucksy stuff to remember the world of espresso. and that's a shame. there are so many things they could do well simply by virtue of their size and influence.

[i'll say this as an aside, it irks me to hear independents smirk at starbucks, as though their profession would be anywhere nearly as accepted or celebrated as it would if starbucks were not the historical player it were. it is simply not true. you cannot convince me otherwise, no matter how much you smirk and preen your rockstarzey ways. starbucks is/was the umbrella under which the independents--the good ones, at least--were able to thrive and gain momentum toward critical mass. that's a whole other missive. email me if you want examples.]

anyways, so people. my people were the hardest working, friendliest, dedicated baristas starbucks has known. i know that's way biased but i just finished a fluffy dream with their smiling faces and i'm allowed that license. seriously, though, those guys were great.

the other big thing starbucks does well is actually a small thing in their world: black apron exclusives. this is code for super premium coffees starbucks offers quarterly and charges a bundle for. they only offer limited amounts because they can't acquire large enough amounts to, say, stock all their stores regularly with these beans. think of it like starbucks best attempt at offering boutique coffees. and oh, are they devine. think of how many pounds starbucks has to buy to supply all its stores with just six pounds of these coffees. it is not the river of coffee i saw in one of their warehouses: i stood on the balcony overlooking fifty-two million pounds of coffee. it was enough to supply that one warehouse's distribution area for six months. rivers of coffee. you cannot be exemplary when you have to offer that much coffee to your customers. bae is a way to get back to that boutique feel.

we'll leave aside the arguments that starbucks roasts their beans too darkly. that is largely a preference thing and can be answered generally by saying that starbucks is not dumb: they typically buy beans--bae beans especially included--that will stand up to their roast styles. but yes, they definitely are roasted dark. and yes, there is a market for that, believe it or not. in my old store, almost two hundred pounds a week's worth of market.

if you're into coffee but not into starbucks, hold your nose just long enough to visit one and ask when the next black apron exclusive comes in. when it does, buy a half pound and cup it. you will be pleased, i hazard to say, if for no other reason than to note that every once in a while starbucks is getting the same lots of coffee so celebrated in the indie coffee world (and typically in those cases, the best of those lots).

starbucks has gotten too big. no question. they have lost sight of their original passion. no doubt. but two things they did well, in my humble estimation: the people at lionville were second to none, anywhere; and their limited time special edition coffees (even seasonal ones like anniversary blend, christmas blend, etc.) are something special.

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