My first visit to Starbucks was more than 20 years ago at a store in a swanky Chicago neighborhood. The company had only just begun its expansion outside its native Seattle and the concept of upscale and pricey coffee required some explanation and justification. I remember with fondness the effusive greeting and sales pitch I received.
“Welcome to Starbucks,” a cheery young woman enthused. The woman went on to explain that coffee was a big deal in Seattle and that Starbucks wanted to bring the experience to Chicagoland. What impressed me was the pride the woman took working for Starbucks and trying to hook customers on its mission. The coffee she served was fresh and piping hot, rife with more caffeine than the cups of Joe I was used to. I was wired for days!
Visiting a neighbored West L.A. Starbucks at the crack of dawn yesterday I came to appreciate just how far the company has fallen. There was no greeting; the barista didn’t even make eye contact. The red light on the burner with my preferred Pike blend was flashing, an indication it wasn’t working properly. Sure enough, the coffee was stale and lukewarm.
The barista didn’t care his product was deficient, although he grudgingly agreed to make another batch. He took no pride in his work. The assorted pastries looked stale, and on the few occasions I previously sampled them, they had no taste. The store’s pulsating music fostered an unwelcome ambiance. The floor was dirty, and the dim lighting accented the dinginess of the store.
It suddenly hit me: If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, Starbucks stores are decidedly the saddest.
I appreciate that when I visited the Chicago Starbucks store decades ago America was a very different place. Customer service has declined markedly since then, and so has everyday civility. Working a job is now having a gig, and these days businesses consider themselves fortunate if employees even show up. I admit that if I had to serve coffee stored on broken burners in a dingy store at 6 am, I, too, would be pretty miserable. I acknowledge that scaling my Chicago Starbucks experience globally was a near impossible feat.
Still, I’m bewildered that Starbucks manages to stay in business. Smaller chains and local restaurants offer far more welcoming experiences. The Peet’s coffee shop a mile up the road from the Starbucks I visited is staffed with employees who go out their way to make customers feel welcome. Rob, the manager, is very visible and regularly engages with customers. One employee memorized my telephone number to make it easier for me to earn points. The friendliness of Rob and his employees impacts customers and influences them to acknowledge each other. The place functions as the Cheers of West L.A.
Pasta Sisters, a delightful Italian restaurant I frequent in Culver City, manages to attract and retain an enthusiastic and engaged staff. The restaurant is owned by three Italian sisters and its readily evident employees like working there. The Shake Shack I recently visited in Glendale was very enjoyable. I’ve never been to an In-N-Out Burger where I didn’t have a uniformly positive experience.
Starbucks has become a tired and faded brand, miraculously able to coast on a reputation for superior coffee quality that was a myth to begin with. Even when brewed and heated properly Starbucks coffee isn’t all that great, and its downright awful when allowed to sit for a time. The company has morphed into a fast food and coffee chain and during some periods of the day it isn’t even that fast.
Starbucks is missing a golden opportunity to restore luster to its brand and make up for lost sales because of the pandemic. I’m not alone still harboring fears about eating in restaurants indoors. Going for coffee at 6 am for me was a baby step reentering the world after more than a year of Zoomland exile. Starbucks should be going out of its way to make customers feel welcome, comfortable, and safe. My sense is the company has become too big to care.
I’m going to resume my pandemic ritual of staying home and making my own coffee, a skill I’m gradually perfecting. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that I found a coffee maker that can brew far better coffee than Starbucks offers.
It’s the Breville Precision Brewer Thermal, and it’s one of the few home coffee makers that brews at the 200 or so degree temperature recommended by the National Coffee Association. That’s the temp Starbucks brews its coffee – and if you’re fortunate to visit a store with properly functioning burners they serve it at about 170 degrees. Retailing for $299.95, the Breville is a pricey product, but long term it’s a far better value than paying nearly $3 a day for a cup of brewed Starbucks. If you’re spending more than $3 a day at Starbucks and have that kind of money to burn, perhaps you’ll consider making me whole on my AT&T stock.
A word of caution: Breville’s customer service sucks. I called the support line and was instructed to leave a message and advised that someone would call me back. That was more than two months ago.
Starbucks might consider acquiring Breville. It would be a natural extension of its business and culturally the companies would be a very good fit.