Coffee Combination Compulsion


I wonder why there is so much obsession with the number of ways to order a drink at Starbucks?

Author Robyn Waters, in the chapter “Mass Customization” of her new book The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape writes there are more than 19,000 ways to order something to drink at Starbucks. (She doesn’t talk about this as a negative, but just as a fact of our ability to customize). Others report between 55,000 up to 38 million different drink combinations.

But Robyn is not the first to bring up this topic… A Google search with “starbucks drink combinations” will give you a plethora of articles – many mocking the insane excessiveness of it all.

It is because it is something as everyday as coffee that makes options seem absurd?

The ‘have it your way’ or customization concept is hardly new. In fact, ‘have it your way’ has been an on-going slogan (and jingle) for Burger King starting in 1973. (According to TaglineGuru one of the top 25 most influential American taglines since 1948).

Before Starbucks for most Americans, the only two qualities in choosing coffee was it hot, and was it fresh. Flavor was an option a variable based on how long the stuff had been sitting on a hot plate baking in the glass carafe.

Back then; we had options for coffee customization. You could go to a place like McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts and interchange these basic ingredients:

  • Coffee (regular or decaf) with
  • half-and-half milk,
  • regular milk,
  • sugar and/or
  • artificial sweetener.

These 6 ingredients offer 63 different drink combinations.

Let’s get some perspective with other customizable foods. You’ve always been able to ‘have it your way’ with a deli-made sandwich, a pizza, or an ice cream sundae. And Burger King even sang to us in their jingle “special orders don’t upset us…”

Thanks to marketing and advertising many of us can blurt the ingredients of a Big Mac faster than a childhood rhyme. Rap it with me…

Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickle, onion, on a sesame seed bun.

Those 8 ingredients offer you at least 255 ways to order a Big Mac.

A mom-and-pop ice cream place has at least 10 flavors of ice cream, 3 sauces and 3 toppings to choose from. 16 ingredients offer 78,998 combinations. I’m not going to calculate the myriad options at Cold Stone Creamery.

An average pizza place will have at least 5 meat toppings, 10 different vegetable toppings, sauce and cheese. Also, most have 2 styles of pizza crust to choose from. These 19 ingredients offer you over 524,287 combinations.

The average deli offers at least 3 different types of bread, 10 meats, 5 cheeses, 3 vegetables, and 4 condiments. With 25 ingredients, assuming you get at least bread and something else gives 33,554,106 combinations.

Most of us have pizza, ice cream sundaes, and a Big Mac once in a while. A deli sandwich? More often. But coffee… a drink that most people consume at least one cup a day (some up to 10 cups)… why would options be something negative?

Finally, with the service Starbucks offers, if you ask the barista to steam the milk in your double-tall, non-fat, decaf, caramel latte to 140.5-degrees they will happily do that for you. So the real number of combinations actually infinite.

I can’t see how that can be a bad thing?!

For Reference

Ingredient Options
Big Mac
Ice Cream Sundae
Deli Sandwich