Saturday, April 16, 2005


Bad idea, Starbucks

In this New York Times story, I read with shock and amazement that Starbucks is planning to install automated espresso machines in its stores:
n the United States, purveyors of specialty coffee - caffè lattes and the like - net $8.4 billion a year, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a sponsor of this weekend's event. The spread of Starbucks is a big reason for that sum, which is more than in any other country. But no Starbucks barista has ever won a United States championship, much less the world title.

This is a point of pride for independent baristas like Ms. Tran, who works as the lead trainer for Zoka Coffee, a small Seattle company that can now claim two national champions. Zoka's owner, Jeff Babcock, who hired Ms. Tran shortly after she won the national competition, said, "I can't compete against a great big company, so I beat them in the quality sector."

Mr. Babcock added, with some competitive glee, that his strategy of quality outperformance would only be helped when Starbucks moves to automated espresso machines that tamp and pour espresso shots on their own, leaving the Starbucks barista to just push a button and steam some milk. Lara Wyss, a spokeswoman for Starbucks, said an automatic machine would soon be in each of the company's 6,800 American stores.

"What we find is that it's able to pull a more consistent shot," Ms. Wyss said, "and that it is a great cup of coffee."

Mr. Babcock, a man who drinks coffee as if it were wine, sniffing before sipping, could only, well, sniff at that idea.
I second that sniff. I have a hard time reconciling this shift with the bright-eyed coffee idealism of Staburcks CEO Howard Schultz, who wrote in his 1997 book, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, that "nothing matters more in our business than the taste of the coffee. ... Coffee is easily ruined. Even if you buy the right beans, they can go stale on the shelf, be under- or over-roasted, brewed improperly, or served lukewarm. We are fastidious about making sure nothing goes wrong any step of the way." Fastidious no more, I suppose -- unless you think serving latte out of the equivalent of a push-button vending machine is being fastidious about the taste of coffee. I can only wonder what the people at Starbucks Gossip will have to say about this.

Aside from the quality control issues here, will this complicate the question of how much to tip baristas?

Collective Improvisation:
Caleb, they already use a machine like that in my Starbucks. It produces a fine espresso (although I'm not an expert, to be sure) and is very fast, which is a bonus in my Starbucks, as it's one of the busiest in the DC area. And there is more to making an espresso drink than brewing the espresso (except for a straight espresso). The steamed milk is a critical factor, I think. :) 

Posted by Dave

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/18/2005 07:20:00 AM : Permalink  

After reading your comment, Dave, I realize I had been misreading the original article. I thought the barista pushed a button to steam the milk too! (Note to NYT reporter: that sentence is somewhat ambiguous, at least to skimmers like myself.) I can see how it would be different if only drawing the espresso shot is automated, but you can see why I was so upset, given my misreading!

In truth, though, I tend to get drip coffee at Starbucks. The espresso drink is the rare luxury, which is all the more reason why, for me at least, skill in making it is as important as speed.

Okay, I'll get off the coffee-blogging sooner or later, but there's also an interesting article in the Post  today about the "Starbucks Effect" on traffic patterns and air pollution. Read the whole thing , for enlightenment and amusement. But mainly amusement. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/18/2005 08:20:00 AM : Permalink  

Actually, a button can be pushed to steam the milk. The bar is automated. Such a tragedy to those of us who cherish the art of pulling a perfect espresso shot. But efficiency rules in this day and age.  

Posted by Duvall

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/24/2005 08:55:00 PM : Permalink  

Dateline 2050: Starbucks announces a new service whereby a customer pushes a button at the base of the skull to release caffeine directly into the bloodstream. 

Posted by buzz

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/17/2005 09:19:00 PM : Permalink  

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