[Homeroast] (resending )The Dreaded Starbucks

Sandy Andina sandraandina at mac.com
Sun Mar 7 15:10:41 CST 2010

Here we go again, but I'll bite. I have nothing against the original concept of Starbucks, nor its current and past CEO Howard Schultz.  In fact, it performs a valuable service:  raising the bar above preground canned coffee (and until recently, instant) for the average citizen, introducing Italian espresso bar culture first to Seattle and then beyond, and providing a reasonably palatable and sometimes even tasty caffeinated quaff while on freeways, tollways, or pushing a supermarket shopping cart. The two major (and I feel, valid) criticisms of Starbucks are its predilection for overly-dark-roasting (using Peet's as its role model, but nobody seems to be slamming Peet's) and more seriously, its predatory expansion practices during the first half of the past decade.  A third criticism is that it has conflated "dark roast" with "strength" and "sophistication" in the public's mind and palate; but in the past few years consumers have begun to learn otherwise, and the Emperor is conceding he needs to throw on some clothes (see below).

Lately, Starbucks has relented somewhat on both aspects.  When Schultz came back in as CEO (it was under his first tenure, after dark roast had already become its signature, that it began its café operations; it used to sell only coffee, tea, chocolate, spices/herbs and equipment), he was shocked at how over-roasting and selling sealed bags of older coffee beans had homogenized the character of the coffee served and sold, and how the use of superautomatic machines had resulted in decline of barista skills and quality of the drinks.  He had his roasters and blenders devise a much lighter (if you can call FC "light") Pike Place Blend, instructed it not be brewed any stronger than the darker roasts (in the past, the few lighter beans Starbucks offered had been brewed double strength in-store to keep the consistent "Starbuck's signature" dark taste), and that it be offered in bulk, with boxes labeled with roast date and location. (Sealed bags' freshness is still suspect, but at kiosks that's often the only way to buy their beans at retail).  He also closed down his stores for several days to retrain his baristi in proper espresso and foaming skills and began replacing the superautos with others that, while incorporating grinders, had manual override for both shots and foam.  

The predatory location practices have also been pared way back--first, because of oversaturation of the market; second, recession; and third, social pressure from the press, consumers, and those independent shop-owners and roasters who owned their buildings or had leverage with their landlords and were able to hang on (loyal local fans were also a crucial factor).  At the height (moral depths?) of its expansion, Starbucks would seek out popular indie shops and offer their landlords higher rents, or even take over non-coffee storefronts in irrationally nearby locations in order to make its brand synonymous in consumers' minds with coffee and coffee drinks.  (Hence, Starbucks stores kitty-corner from each other in parts of Manhattan, and Jay Leno's crack about a new Starbucks opening up inside a larger Starbucks). 

The new Via is a step up from Taster's Choice, I suppose, but no competition for the real thing. It was originally designed for people to keep in pocket or purse to be reconstituted wherever they could find hot water, but I don't see many places offering hot water for free.  IMHO, it's peaking and will pass within a year, much like the pods Starbucks used to sell for its own Saeco-made machines (customers who want to use ESE pods know they have a greater variety of sources for them, as well as competition for the convenience-espresso market in the form of Nespresso capsules, Tassimo pods and home superautos).  You don't see too many pods in Starbucks stores these days. 

Many of us forget that in the early 1970s, those of us who did not have access to quality roasters like McNulty's or Peets (or whose A&P stores didn't have fresh enough Eight O' Clock or Bokar beans) and had not yet been exposed to the quantum leap in quality afforded by grinding beans just before brewing, the first Starbucks stores were a welcome revelation.  And when they finally expanded beyond Seattle, they performed a similar service to the coffee-consuming public before losing their compass.  They're not the messiahs they were way back when, but neither are they as "evil" an "empire" as they were as recently as three or four years ago.  As to coffee snobbery, if it's a long wait for the bus, I have a long shopping list at my local supermarket or my energy's flagging and the Tollway Oasis is coming up, sure I'll have myself a triple espresso macchiato or a double tall dry-capp at a handy Starbucks.  Just as most of us who love a fine wine or prime steak will on occasion drink a "fighting varietal" or chow down on a non-gourmet burger when circumstances (or impulse) dictate. 
On Mar 7, 2010, at 2:08 PM, Ryan M. Ward wrote:

> This may or may not be considered off topic but, 
> I am curious. I see a lot of people on this this that seem to look down upon Stabucks, I am curious as to why. Starbucks seem to get a lot of negative attention in the Speciality Coffee Industry in spite of many of the positive contributions that they have made. I was wondering what people's opinions are on Starbucks and why.
> -- 

Peace & song, 

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