March 2007

Solving Starbucks Problems – 5. Loss of Identity

By | 2017-08-19T17:23:41+00:00 13 March 2007|Categories: grow, SandBlog|Tags: , , |

Loss of Identity

This article is the 5th in a series of 5 where John Moore and I, two former Starbucks marketers, offer recommended changes based upon Howard Schultz’s email to the Starbucks leadership team.

I have said for 20 years that our success is not an entitlement and now it’s proving to be a reality. Let’s be smarter about how we are spending our time, money and resources. Let’s get back to the core. Push for innovation and do the things necessary to once again differentiate Starbucks from all others… – Howard’s email

The two main concerns Howard expresses are…

  • Get back to the core.
  • Push for innovation.

Stripper & Sandpaper

Starbucks wanting to return to its core, can be likened to restoring antique furniture to its original finish. What you do to an old armoire or dining table is what the Starbucks team should do to preserve the company’s original core.
On the left, I outline the traditional furniture restoration steps… On the right, I’ve loosely applied that as a lesson for Starbucks.

Furniture Starbucks


Remove contemporary knobs, hinges, and pulls recently added to spice up the piece. While nice decoration, they will not match the restored piece. Discard. Use paint stripper, a scraper, and steel wool (for the stubborn spots) to completely remove the layers of old paint.Remove the decorative items that aren’t adding to the experience. These will not match the look of the core. Discard. Strip off the added programs and products that – while pretty – prevent the core from showing. Easier said than done… this will require patience and “steel wool” on the stubborn spots.


Smooth out any damaged or rough places left in the wood. Spots where damage, over time, has penetrated the surface and into the wood. You may find gaps in the grain. These need to be filled with grain filler to achieve a smooth even finish. Apply filler and remove excess with scraper and sand paper. Of course, there will be some rough spots that need smoothing. You will notice that there are gaps exposed that the paint hid. Fill these properly for that smooth finish you’re looking for. The attention to detail here – before adding the protective finishes will make a world of difference.


Apply thin coats of finish to the piece. Layer on a protective coat to protect it from dirt Ah. Now that we’re down to where we want to be – let’s preserve the core finish. Intensify and highlight the grain – the markings of your core. Choose a durable finish – one that can handle daily wear and tear.


Admire your results. Put someone in charge of maintaining the piece on a regular basis. Create rules that prevent the beauty of the piece from once again being covered over with gaudy colors. Protect from too much heat and chemicals. Use coasters to prevent staining.

Less Innovation, More Exploration

It is easy to argue that strawberry and banana flavored blender beverages are far away from the core offerings of a coffee and tea expert… Even as alternatives for those who don’t like the taste of coffee. Driven by the continued need to increase sales, it’s a major challenge for the beverage team to maintain the investor-driven mission of constantly developing new beverages.

But Starbucks isn’t really in the beverage innovation business. Starbucks didn’t invent coffee, or espresso, or the latte. Starbucks is actually in the beverage discovery/distribution business. They didn’t invent iced, sweetened, coffee blended with milk – they discovered someone else with this delicious cold drink and created the Frappuccino. They made this recipe available large-scale. They didn’t invent Chai tea, but before Starbucks offered their version, you’d have to search for high-and-low for a place that served it. Now Chai is standard in cafes throughout North America.

Starbucks’ problem is not the lack of innovation or imagination, it’s lack of exploration. Every culture and country big and small has their own recipes. (e.g., Cuban, Mexican, Caribbean, Viennese, Greek, Turkish, and even ol’ American Cowboy coffee).

Starbucks, do what you do best and continue to search the world for exotic coffee, tea, and related beverages recipes. Uncover exotic concoctions and share them with the world. Be who you are… Explorers and discoverers.

First Things First…

Howard is smart for raising challenges and asking tough questions. What should they do first? I recommend they clearly define “who they are” and “who they want to be.”
Do and Do Not

[clip and use in boardroom]

  1. Gather the company “deciders.”
  2. Fold a clean piece of paper in half. On one half of the fold write atop the page “what we DO want to be” on the other half, write “what we DO NOT want to be.”
  3. Create ideas for both columns and continue on as many pieces of paper it takes to exhaust your ideas… and then do some more.
  4. Review the “what we DO want to be” list and move some of those ideas to the other side… You won’t be able to be ALL of those things.
  5. Use these lists to examine everything you are currently doing, and planning to do. If your ideas are supported by the “What we DO want to be” column – go for it. If the project, program, or idea hints of something in the “what we DO NOT want to be” column… Run away!

While this closes my recommendations for Howard’s five key topics, I’ve got a few more ideas inspired by these posts… But for now, check out John’s smart thoughts on Solving Starbucks Problems: Lack of Identity.

Solving Starbucks Problems Series Summary

Solving Starbucks Problems – 4. Lack of Merchandise Focus

By | 2017-08-19T17:09:26+00:00 12 March 2007|Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , , |

This is the 4th in a series of 5 posts where John Moore and I, two former Starbucks marketers, offer recommended changes based upon Howard Schultz’s email to his leadership team.

“The merchandise, more art than science, is far removed from being the merchant that I believe we can be and certainly at a minimum should support the foundation of our coffee heritage. Some stores don’t have coffee grinders, French presses from Bodum, or even coffee filters.” – Howard’s email

John does a thorough job taking us through a quick history lesson of how Starbucks has spun away from core coffee-related products.

John offers a Decision-Making Guidelines for Starbucks to follow… IF/THEN statements to guide their decision-making.

I would like to expand one of his guidelines and offer an additional one.

To John’s first guideline…

“Does this product link directly to coffee? If yes, sell it. If no, don’t.”

I would like to modify this to read…

“Does this product link directly to the…

  1. …preparation of coffee? (60% priority) and/or
  2. …consumption of coffee? (30% priority) and/or
  3. …the enjoyment of ‘in-store Starbucks’ at home? (10% priority)

If yes, consider it. If not, don’t.”

I made this guideline more strict by limiting it to the preparation/consumption of coffee. In the past, the selling of books, stationery, and staplers was considered “okay” because these are all things you could do while sipping a cup of coffee. I’m sure there are plenty of things we could imagine doing with a cuppa joe in hand that aren’t appropriate in Starbucks.

I’ve added a priority scale… Starbucks should spend more time working on ways for me to make a great cup of coffee at home (60% of their energy) versus creating things to make my home more like Starbucks (10% of their energy).

I also made this filter a little broader by adding… “the enjoyment of in-store Starbucks at home.” The Starbucks music compilations are terrific. The team has created uncommonly good compilations of great music tracks. (This does not include the Top-40 CDs Starbucks sells that can be also purchased at any music store. These are common. If you want to be remarkable, only offer the uncommon).

An additional guideline I’d like to add is…

“Is this truly making the world a better place?”

Starbucks should be allowed the exception to sell just about anything if they are using the power of the number of locations, the number of employees, and the number of customers for good… to make the community or world, a better place.

John mentions rumors that Starbucks may be creating a new music label called Starbucks Records. Using these guidelines, unless the full proceeds from the sales of Starbucks Records are donated to help charity… Starbucks may be undertaking an effort that: may dilute the brand, is not differentiating them from other record labels, and moves in an opposite direction the core.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Solving Starbucks Problems Series

Here are all the articles in this series:
Issue 1: Loss of Theater
Issue 2: Loss of Coffe Aroma
Issue 3: Loss of Store Soul
Issue 4: Lack of Merchandise Focus
Issue 5: Loss of Identity

Solving Starbucks Problems – 3. Loss of Store Soul

By | 2017-08-19T16:53:10+00:00 9 March 2007|Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , |

John Moore and I, two former Starbucks marketers, are offering recommendations to Starbucks in response to chairman Howard Schultz’s email. from 2007.

We are examining his third challenge to the team: Loss of Store Soul

“Clearly we have had to streamline store design to gain efficiencies of scale…However, one of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store. Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee.” – Howard Schultz email

Howard expresses concern about stores looking like chain stores and being cookie cutter.

Even Snowflakes Look Alike from a Distance

While there are things Starbucks can do to reduce the cookie-cutter feel, it is a challenge to have 15,000 of anything and not have them begin to look alike.

I’ve come up with three key ideas to help solve this challenge…

  • What’s Mom n’ Pop Got that Starbucks Has Not? – What’s the opposite of a chain store? A Mom n’ Pop cafe. Let’s suggest changes based on the Mom ‘n Pop experience.
  • Stop Being All Things, to All People, at All Stores – Starbucks cafes look very similar because, well… they are. What we can we do re-create the destination Starbucks once was.
  • Chain, Chain, Change – If Starbucks doesn’t like the stigma of the label “chain store” – change the association…

What’s Mom n’ Pop Got that Starbucks Has Not?

If I were working this problem with a client, I would have had each participant do pre-work: Visit a local, quality Mom n’ Pop coffee shop and jot down observations regarding the experience.

The list would read something like this…

  • Friendly staff, one of them was the owner.
  • Nice, but not overly design in the cafe.
  • Artwork featured local artists and/or coffee inspired images. (My local cafe has black and white pictures of celebrities from the 40s and 50s drinking espresso and coffee).
  • Fixtures were old furniture with character vs. “form follows function” equipment. (Condiment bar was an old dresser.)
  • Our beverages were prepared one at a time. They filled the milk pitcher with just enough milk to steam one drink at once.
  • They made “latte art” when they poured the milk and foam into my latte.
  • They gave me a small cookie as a garnish with my drink.
  • The owner brings in fresh flowers each day from the corner florist.
  • They ran out of the freshly baked banana bread. Evidently, you have to get there early to get a piece. (Customers find this a charm of the cafe – like a fresh farmer’s market – the best stuff goes fast and lasts as long as it lasts).
  • More than five people in line ‘slammed’ the barista, customers would walk half way into the store the leave.

It’s interesting what customers consider quirky at a single location translates to annoyance if you have more than one location. When you open more than ONE of a business with the same name on it – whether it is a copy center, dry cleaner, or coffee shop – customers begin to expect consistency.

Using our list as inspiration, below are a couple of ways Starbucks may crumble the cookie-cutter look and feel.

  • Mixed Matched Furniture – Mass-producing condiment stations (the place where you add milk, sugar, etc) with a built in trash-hole and spaces to hold three types of sugar, stir stick and napkins is very practical. Nevertheless, it’s a piece of industrial furniture.
  • Plants and Fresh Flowers – Nearly every Mom and Pop has plant life. Fresh cut flowers in a vase near the cash register or green potted plants dotted through the cafe. Agreed, overgrown plants strung from beaded macramé hangers are not what I have in mind. However, there are clean, tasteful ways to execute this.
  • More Local Artwork – Rely less on standardized company murals and feature local artists work instead. Some Starbucks locations do display local art – let’s make this the rule not the exception. Connect Starbucks with the local art community and everyone benefits.
  • Eliminate Promotional Posters – There are no small or Mom and Pop cafes which post mass-produced product messaging. Occasionally you will find promotional materials provided by the coffee vendor or a specialty bottled drink.

As a former Starbucks marketer who used to be in charge of creating the promotional signage and materials found in-store, I know I’ve just committed Starbucks heresy. But what I also know is that study after study at Starbucks demonstrated that the in-store posters do not drive trial and excitement the way the marketing and product teams hope. The signage is more effective at feeding the ego and comforting the product manager than it actually is at driving sales. (Who doesn’t ponder the effectiveness of the NEW Frappuccino flavor promoted above the urinals or in the ladies restroom?)

Now we have four good reasons to stop creating posters…

    1. They don’t drive meaningful trial and awareness.
    2. They’re expensive to produce for something that’s ineffective.
    3. Reduce use of paper.
    4. They contribute to the cookie cutter look of the stores.

Replace the promotional posters and their frames with more local artwork.

What else could Starbucks consider?

Stop Being All Things, to All People, at All Stores

While Starbucks stores vary somewhat in merchandise offerings and architectural layout based on volume of store traffic (high/low), location (downtown/suburban), and the physical shape of the store space – to the average customer one Starbucks cafe is pretty much like the next.

In the beginning, Starbucks used to be a place you would have to seek out. A place you wanted to get to – a destination. With so many locations – especially in big cities – one cafe is as good as the next. Let’s make the common uncommon by creating Destination Flagship locations. These locations serve as monotony breakers for customers as well as offer Starbucks the chance to re-express their coffee leadership and expertise.

  • Flagship: Whole Bean – THE destination for whole bean expertise
    Features: Expanded whole bean offerings. Exotic coffees while supplies last. Connection with coffee farmers and coffee growing regions. Baristas, who really know, can explain, and demystify coffee. In-store roasting. In-store coffee blending. Regular tasting seminars. Food pairing seminars.
  • Flagship: Brewing – THE destination for at-home brewing expertise.
    Features: Expanded selection of at-home brewing equipment – ranging from simple press-pot, practical coffee maker, to elaborate ‘Starbucks in your home’ installations. Continuous brewing machine demonstrations. Brew the Best Cup at-home classes.

It’s a problem to try to have every Starbucks partner know everything about everything. Flagship locations allow baristas to be certified experts in everything whole bean related and brewing equipment related.

Chain, Chain, Change

While there are still…

  • …towns that host a parade when they get their first Starbucks,
  • …happy travelers pleased to find Starbucks abroad,
  • …double-tall non-fat latte lovers happy to have a store built closer to home or work…

There is a share of people who are “over” Starbucks. What’s the big deal? In some major cities, Starbucks literally is on every corner.

Let’s make it a big deal!

Starbucks is a chain store. No doubt about it. Moreover, Starbucks plans to get bigger. How can Starbucks use their size for good versus “evil?”

Leverage ubiquity.

Starbucks has the size and wherewithal to change the role and impact of chain stores… Starbucks can redefine what quantity represents beyond convenience.

A dream of mine, while at Starbucks, was to build a program where ALL stores would unite efforts in achieving a common community goal. In the same way a new traffic light on a busy street means a safer intersection… A new Starbucks on our block means a better neighborhood and world. In addition to offering a great cup of coffee and a comfy in-store experience, Starbucks, the good neighbor with “big connections,” would help repair what ails our communities.
For example…

  • The homeless will now have the help they need.
  • There will be fewer illiterate children.
  • Teens have better options than drugs or gangs.
  • Another coffee farming town has a new school.
  • Another 100 acres of rain forest are now preserved.

Perhaps those examples are unrealistic, or not the exact problems needing solutions, but I’m certain with focus Starbucks could use size to re-define what “big chain store” means and literally make the world a better place.


What are your thoughts? John will continue this conversation at Brand Autopsy. Share your reactions here; share your reactions there.

Extra Credit Activity: Brief History of Starbucks In-Store Design

Starbucks Pre-Soul
Do you remember, in the late-80s and early 90s, when Starbucks was expanding out of Seattle to Chicago, Vancouver BC, Portland, and LA? There was no such thing as “The Third Place.”

Stores had tall wooden tables and tall stools. Along the windows were stand-up counters. This design was inspired by what Howard experience in Italy and wanted to bring to America, a re-creation of the Italian espresso bar experience. The original idea was to provide “quick, stand-up, to-go service in downtown office locations.”

Back then, stores purposely looked identical to each other. Howard wanted new stores to reflect the warmth and feeling of the original Seattle locations. However, as the number of stores increased from 116 in ’92 to 425 locations in ’94, this single design seemed too cookie-cutter.

Too Much Soul
In the mid-90s the idea of the “Third Place” began to form. Howard describes the Third Place in his book “Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time” as “a comfortable, social gathering spot away from home and work, like an extension of the front porch.” Stores were furnished with fireplaces, couches, and “comfy chairs.” However, store development costs were getting out of hand. With plans to more than double store counts in the short-term, and continued aggressive growth in the future, there needed to be a better approach… better design.

Rubber Soul
In ’95 the internal design team addressed the challenge of raising store design to a level beyond the competition, at the same time capturing the essence of the Starbucks experience. This team ended up creating four different sets of design formats. These would provide much more flexibility and design variety from store to store. The details of these design elements was bound in a thick, oversized book. It had an artsy cover and back made of thick rubber – and became known as “The Rubber Book.” It contained the visual vocabulary and all the icons, images, textures, and elements designed to tell the Starbucks story. A piece any designer would love to pour through and would surely drool over. In addition, purchase costs were reduced through planning and bulk-ordering of custom in-store fixtures (tables, seating, blown lamp shades, counter elements). They successfully created design elements, furniture, and fixtures competition couldn’t afford to replicate.

Since early 2000, the in-store design pendulum has swung back and forth… From too visually cluttered, too dark, too expensive, and to Howard’s recent comments about streamlining and efficiencies again contributing to a cookie cutter feel.

Solving Starbucks Problems Series

Here are all the articles in this series:
Issue 1: Loss of Theater
Issue 2: Loss of Coffe Aroma
Issue 3: Loss of Store Soul
Issue 4: Lack of Merchandise Focus
Issue 5: Loss of Identity

Solving Starbucks Problems – 2. Loss of Coffee Aroma

By | 2017-08-19T16:38:49+00:00 7 March 2007|Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , |

John Moore and I, two former Starbucks marketers, are offering recommendations to Starbucks in response to chairman Howard Schultz’s 2007 email.

We are examining the second challenge to the team: Loss of Coffee Aroma

“I believe we overlooked the cause and the affect of flavor lock in our stores. We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost? The loss of aroma — perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores; the loss of our people scooping fresh coffee from the bins and grinding it fresh in front of the customer, and once again stripping the store of tradition and our heritage?” – Howard Schultz email

John began this topic at Brand Autopsy. Below are my reactions to his thoughts, and my additional ideas…

I agree with John that the elimination of daily handling, scooping, grinding, and brewing of coffee – replaced by automatic machines and packaged pre-ground coffee is the key to Starbucks missing aroma problem. Starbucks has allowed efficiency measures to trump handcrafting. Handcrafting exposes us to the activities, sights and smells of the coffee making process – that is theatre (we discuss theatre here and here). Factory efficiency techniques thwart handcrafting.

The Dairy Air Stinks
The loss of coffee aroma is a double-whammy for Starbucks… With the warm, welcoming smell of fresh-ground coffee gone, the replacement is the smell of over-steamed, burnt milk. As a restaurateur, it’s disappointing to have a good smell disappear, but even worse to have an unappetizing smell replace it.

FlavorLock Not Exonerated
While I agree with John that FlavorLock packaging is not the single cause of the loss of in-store coffee aroma, I do think FlavorLock shares some blame.

Before FlavorLock, store partners used to open large bags of freshly roasted coffee… One pound at a time, they would measure and scoop into paper bags. This is how whole bean was sold for customer at-home brewing. All this bean handling, pouring, measuring and scooping introduced a lot of aroma to the store. Finally, any product that didn’t sell within seven days was ground up and donated. (Yet another chance for scent to waft through the store).

FlavorLock as a replacement for hand scooping has reduced coffee aroma.

Whole bean coffee used to be treasured as an exotic agricultural product obtained from around the world. This coffee was special. It was custom-roasted by Starbucks and delivered to stores to be handled daily with care. Even before they were ground, the shiny beans released a terrific aroma. Each day coffee was hand-scooped, and custom ground. With the introduction of FlavorLock packaging, handling with care became unnecessary. To partners, whole bean coffee became a canned good – a commodity. Partners now only lug a case of X from the storeroom and replace the three missing packages on the merchandise shelf.

Its no wonder baristas have lost passion for coffee. Who gets excited about a canned good?

Hold the Pastrami, Smell the Coffee
Howard has stated many times over the years, and VERY clearly in his 1997 book, Pour Your Heart Into It his philosophy on coffee aroma…

What’s the first thing you notice when you approach a Starbucks store? Almost always, it’s the aroma. Even non-coffee drinkers love the smell of brewing coffee. It’s heady, rich, full-bodied, dark, suggestive. Aroma triggers memories more strong than any of the other senses, and it obviously plays a major role in attracting people to our stores.

Keeping that coffee aroma pure is no easy task. Because coffee beans have a bad tendency to absorb odors, we banned smoking in our stores years before it became a national trend. We ask our partners to refrain from using perfume and cologne. We won’t sell chemically flavored coffee beans. We won’t sell soup, sliced pastrami, or cooked food. We want you to smell coffee only.

Well, never say never. To “drive incremental sales during the morning daypart,” Starbucks has been cooking food. In a limited number of test markets, Starbucks has been using small high-speed ovens to heat sandwiches and pastries. This is allowing Starbucks to capture additional sales from customers who have been buying their coffee at Starbucks, but breakfast somewhere else.

While I admit, there is nothing tastier than the Starbucks molasses cookie heated and served warm… The offending smells of cooked egg and burnt cheese overpower any chance of coffee aroma, just as Howard feared.

So, what solutions will bring back coffee aroma?

A seemingly simple answer…
Why doesn’t Starbucks just do what all of the other scent-filled, gourmet coffee places do? Merchandise coffee in barrels, with big scoops!? The place will fill with coffee smell.

Ironically, what we perceive as the fresh, gourmet, and authentic way to display coffee is the absolute worst thing you could do to coffee. Exposure to light and air causes coffee go stale and quickly destroys quality and flavor.

While the coffee displays at places like Zabar’s in NYC look like an old world market – scooping from an open-air barrel is the worst way to buy coffee.

Therefore, what ARE solutions?

  • Fresh Grind Thru the Day for In-Store Brewing – I can confirm first-hand that John’s suggestion of having stores re-instate the practice of fresh-grinding coffee for brewing will in itself return coffee aroma.While traveling to Vienna, Austria a few weeks ago, I stopped into Starbucks for my latte. There was something about the store visit that was different from the norm… yet familiar. Then I realized – I smell coffee! It was like the old days at Starbucks. Why do I smell coffee in European Starbucks, but not in the US? European Starbucks locations are NOT brewing coffee using the tear-open bags of factory packaged, pre-ground and, pre-measured coffee. They grind small, fresh batches – all through the day – filling the store with a great coffee aroma.
  • Create and Strictly Follow an “Aroma First” Rule – Since coffee is Starbucks core, and scent is the strongest cue for our senses – make aroma the highest priority. (Yes, even more important than perceived increased sales). Maintain Howard’s original desire to preserve aroma and implement an “Aroma First” rule. It’s simple, for every decision; ask, “Is this going to negatively affect aroma in any way?” If the answer is “yes” do not do it…Let’s use the “Aroma First” rule to review previous decisions and some new ideas…
    Project Affect on Aroma Implement?
    Provide pre-ground coffee instead of in-store grinding. Negative. Eliminates chance for smell. No. Do not.
    Heat foods in-store. Negative. Introduces conflicting smells. No. Do not.
    Use FlavorLock pre-packaged beans. Negative. This eliminates hand scooping. Hand scooping adds coffee aroma to stores. No. Do not. Use these in the grocery channel and at airport locations where scent is not critical.
    Install mini coffee roasters in select stores. Positive. If roasted properly will increase the coffee aroma. Yes, explore this idea. If they can do it in-store at Whole Foods Market, Costco Warehouses, and the two-location Atomic Cafe, Starbucks could consider it.
    Use barrels of coffee to merchandise coffee. Positive. Will enhance aroma. Yes, explore this idea. But this coffee is for display (and aroma) only and cannot be brewed.

    The Aroma First tool provides a guide to fix old problems, and prevent new ones.

What practical ideas do you have? Add your reactions! Let us know your thoughts.

Our next topic, Solving Starbucks Problems: Loss of Store Soul, will address Howard’s concern that stores have become too chain store like. I will begin the conversation here at Idea Sandbox, and John will follow-up with his thoughts at Brand Autopsy.

Solving Starbucks Problems: One Post at a Time
Where we’ve been…

Where we’re going…

Solving Starbucks Problems – 1. Loss of Theatre

By | 2017-08-19T16:33:04+00:00 5 March 2007|Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , , |

On 23 February 2007 an e-mail, from Starbucks Coffee chairman Howard Schultz to his senior leadership team, was leaked and posted on the internet. In the note, Howard outlined key issues leading to possible “commoditization of the Starbucks brand.”

This is the first in a series of posts where johnmoore and I, both former Starbucks marketers, offer our recommendations to the Starbucks leadership team. Recommendations specifically designed to help Starbucks…“get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience.”

Here is a portion of Howard’s email where he states his first challenge to the team… Loss of Theatre.

When we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocco* machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista. – Howard Schultz eMail

*La Marzocco is a brand of manually operated espresso machine

Issue 1: Loss of Theatre

The loss of “romance and theatre” due to automated machines has created two challenges:

  1. The machines have created a physical barrier between the barista and the customer.
  2. Automatic functions have replaced barista hand-crafting, knowledge, and expertize.

Before I jump into solutions, let’s look at the benefits added and problems caused by automated machines at Starbucks…

Automation: Pros/Cons

PRO: Problems Solved:

  • Drinks are more consistent from store to store.
  • Less chance for barista error – no longer do baristas have to manage the proper grind, dose of coffee, proper tamping, and timing.
  • Less “bad shots” pulled due to poor calibration of manual machines. This means
    • drinks can be made faster enhancing speed of service, and
    • less product waste, which reduces food cost for Starbucks.
  • The barista can multi-task. Instead of monitoring the shot, the barista can be steaming milk or prepping the next drink while the machine dispenses the perfect shot.

CON: Problems Created:

  • Beverages seem less hand-crafted. More mechanical, less personal.
  • Current automated machines block sight-line between customer and barista.
  • Expertise no longer required. Baristas rely on machine and skills become lazy. Shots poured directly into the paper cup. (No more looking at shots, assumption they taste good).


  • Go Semi-Automatic – If fully-automated is too automated, put some manual back. Keep some automation by having the grind, dose, and tamp performed on an automated grinder, but let the barista use a manual espresso machine. (See Good Shot, Bad Shot below for more background on jargon and details).
  • Differentiate Stores – At this stage for Starbucks, it’s very impractical in high-volume city stores to eliminate automation. The wait times to have your beverage made would put Starbucks out of business. (Think about how often you’ve seen a line 5, 10 or 15 people deep, but stuck with it because you knew you’d get through quickly). Target these stores only for automation. The suburban and lower volume stores could stay manual. Be sure to rotate partners (employees) between stores with manual machines, so all partners retain their craft at pulling espresso shots.
  • Manual Prioritization – Most stores use more than one espresso machine. Install an automatic and a manual machine. Make the manual the primary machine, and use the automatic only during high-volume parts of the day.
  • Eliminate Visual Barrier – Reposition the espresso machines and barista so the customer can see the barista and the beverage crafting. I know this is something that Starbucks has been working on… both a better layout for new stores and a way to fix existing stores. Make this a top priority.
  • Design Low-Profile Machines – To test automation, Starbucks initially purchased off-the-shelf machines. These are obviously constructed taller than Starbucks would spec if they built their own. In fact, Starbucks had been testing lower profile machines for more than 18-months… I assume these slick, retro-looking, lower profile machines must not have delivered what they hoped, or Starbucks would have started to use these to fix the sightline problem Howard mentions.
  • Re-Train “Unnecessary” Knowledge – Like learning, but not using a foreign language, with automated machines most baristas do not need to use their “good shot/bad shot” training (See below). They lose their espresso skills. Re-train this knowledge and make sure baristas have a chance to exercise it.

Good Shot, Bad Shot (Background)

While our first reaction may be… “It’s just coffee. What’s the big deal!?” …It isn’t simple to make a great espresso-based beverages. The secret is in the espresso shot. This has been a frustration for many customers who buy at-home machines, and the accouterments, but still can’t get it to taste like the way the coffee shop makes it.

Key steps to manually “pulling shots” of espresso used in Starbucks beverages are generally as follows. (You’ll see why automating makes such great sense).

There are two key pieces of equipment… the grinder and the espresso machine.

First: Start at Grinder

  1. Grind coffee to proper grind (size).
  2. Put appropriate measure (dose) of ground coffee in portafilter (the small metal handle that gets wrenched onto the espresso machine).
  3. Tamp (press down) with proper pressure on the ground coffee in the portafilter.

Next: Espresso Machine

  1. Pull shot for the right amount of time (Starbucks has guideline range of 18 to 23 seconds). This means that the 2 ounces of water pressurized by the espresso machine takes 18 to 23 seconds to flow through the finely ground coffee.
  2. Visually inspect espresso shot in the shot glass for indication of quality – distinctive three layers – heart, body, and crema.
  3. Rinse portafilter under hot water, ready for next espresso shot.

GOOD SHOT – If the shot takes 18 to 23 seconds and looks good, it’s okay to use in a beverage.

BAD SHOT – If it comes out too quickly or too slowly, it means that something isn’t correct, it would taste awful, so you need to pull another shot.

    To correct, the barista needs to determine if one, a combination, or all of these is wrong… wrong grind, wrong dose, wrong tamp, wrong timing.

A skilled barista can probably make a single adjustment to compensate and get the next shot just right. At times, however, it may take 3, 4 or 5 trials to get the shot perfect. Quality is the key.

The automated machines Starbucks uses combine the grinder and espresso machine into one. It grinds, measures/doses, tamps, pulls, times, and cleans automatically. (Even programmed to pull for the right amount of time to taste like a shot pulled from the manual “La Marzocco” machine).

Manual machines and grinders need to be calibrated multiple times each day – affected by temperature, humidity, and oiliness of the coffee beans.

Making Sense of an Espresso Shot

Sight – A properly prepared espresso shot produces three distinct layers in a shot glass – heart (bottom), body (middle), and crema (top). Akin to the way an experienced bartender can “see” if a beer is too warm/cold or flat by the way the head forms on the beer, the barista can immediately “see” if a shot will taste good our not in your drink.

Taste – Taste buds tell no tales. No matter what type of drink you order, from straight espresso to something elaborate with milk, syrup, and toppings, if the espresso shot tastes poor, the entire drink will taste poor.

One Post at a Time…

John continues this conversation at Brand Autopsy. Share your reactions here, share your reactions there.

Solving Starbucks Problems Series

Here are all the articles in this series:
Issue 1: Loss of Theater
Issue 2: Loss of Coffe Aroma
Issue 3: Loss of Store Soul
Issue 4: Lack of Merchandise Focus
Issue 5: Loss of Identity

Solving Starbucks Problems: One Post at a Time

By | 2011-04-13T23:22:27+00:00 2 March 2007|Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , , |

Last week an e-mail, from Starbucks Coffee chairman Howard Schultz to his senior leadership team, was leaked and posted on the internet. In the note Howard outlines to his senior leadership team key issues leading to “commoditization of the brand.”

Howard’s Concerns

“It’s time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience.”

Howard identifies five issues, they are:

  1. Loss of Theatre
  2. Loss of Coffee Aroma
  3. Loss of Store Soul
  4. Lack of Merchandise Focus
  5. Loss of Identity (Differentiation)

Starbucks Leadership Team +2

John Moore (with Brand Autopsy) and I have over 19 years combined experience as former marketers with Starbucks. The company has provided us with incredible experience and expertise. We are compelled to give something back.

In a series of posts, John and I will offer suggestions to Howard and his team. We will ping-pong between our two sites – Brand Autopsy and Idea Sandbox – offering our opinions, recommendations, and looking for your reactions.

John kicks us off with an introduction on Sunday, March 4th and I offer our first set of solutions one post at at time on Monday morning.