Last Updated on 19 August 2017

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