Fear & Loathing at Starbucks

February 27, 2007

A leaked Valentine’s Day memo from Howard Shultz, the chairman and founder of Starbucks Corp. suggests that their success may not have been as sweet as your average Pumpkin Spice Latte…

For example, 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 Marzocca 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.

(ummm… That’s La Marzocco, Howard…)

For me, this has got to be the ‘Bucks’ number one issue — with a bullet.

No matter how good they are, the full-auto machines just do not produce as good of a shot of espresso as a barista who actually uses a little care, and freshly grinds, hand tamps and pulls a shot on a good semi-auto machine like the La Marzocco.

The training just can’t be that hard. I’ll grant you that it takes a great deal of care and practice to be a world class barista, but that’s miles above “competent”, and frankly competent is good enough.

Grind the beans, load the portafilter, tamp it, and pull. With just a little experience, the time it takes you to pull the shot and the appearance of the stream gives you volumes of feedback.

Is it as fast and efficient as pushing a button on a full auto? Not at all. It might take 45 seconds of paying attention to grind, tamp and pull a double shot, and another 15 or 20 to clean up afterwards.

But let’s face it, spending a minute a shot is going to go a long ways towards getting your coffee ranked above McDonalds in the next taste test.

Am I willing to wait another two minutes for a good “triple tall Americano” as opposed to the swill they currently serve? You damn betcha.

I care a little less about the “intimate experience” — there aren’t all that many baristas I’d want to get intimate with (although I’ve seen a few….)

Just pull a good shot.

Maybe I’m just too picky — after all, after most of the drinks they pour have been drowned in milk, sweetened, flavored and otherwise doctored up, can people really taste the difference between good coffee and bad?

Huh. Apparently so.

Starbucks has confirmed the authenticity of the memo.

So, let’s bring back the La Marzoccos, then…


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