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March 06, 2007

Solving Starbucks Problems : LOSS OF THEATRE

This post continues the series where Paul Williams and I, two former Starbucks marketers, offer recommended changes based upon Howard Schultz's email to the Starbucks leadership team.
“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 [automated espresso] machines.” -- Howard Schultz email

Paul, you are onto something when you recommend Starbucks go “Semi-Automatic." Let’s build upon this “Semi-Automatic” idea a little more.

We know busier Starbucks locations have different needs than do more laid-back Starbucks locations. Speed of service is obviously going to be more critical in busier, higher-volume Starbucks stores than in slower ones.

Customers visiting higher-volume locations probably use Starbucks not as a third place to linger, but rather as a third space—an impatient moment of respite for those grab-n-go-must-get-back-to-work customers. Using the Verisimo, an automatic espresso machine, in these fast-paced locations would not detract from the customer’s experience because their experience is based upon the need for speed.

While lower-volume stores nestled deep into neighborhood side streets have a customer base that chooses more often to linger and use their Starbucks as a place to gather together their thoughts and gather together with friends. An automated espresso machine designed to increase speed of service feels out-of-place in these slower-paced Starbucks locations.

Starbucks should put the Verisimo automated espresso machines in higher-volume stores and put the La Marzocco manual machines in lower-volume stores.


Sure, that would wreck the entire Barista training process Starbucks has developed. Starbucks would then have to go back and redesign their training manuals and classes to teach store partners (employees) how to use BOTH machines. Is it asking too much to cross-train Baristas on how to use both a manual and an automated espresso machine? I don’t think so.

Stick Shift versus Automatic
Speaking as a former Starbucks Barista, I was trained on the manual La Marzocco machine and when I used the automated machine, it was an easy transition to make. My background pulling manual shots of espresso—all the while steaming milk, capturing drink orders and preparing the full gamut of drinks—prepared me for using the much simpler automated machine. It’s a similar transition we make from driving a stick shift manual transmission car to an automatic car. If you can drive a stick, you can drive an automatic. If you can use a La Marzocco, you can use a Verisimo.

Feelings of Entitlement
Paul is right-on when he says “Expertise is no longer required” with automated espresso machines. Same goes for driving a manual transmission car. Expertise, beyond knowing the basics, is no longer required. It’s easy. Just start the engine and put the gear to drive and you’re off. However, when driving a stick shift manual car, you must listen to the rev of the engine to know when to shift gears. It takes a certain level of expertise to master driving a stick.

People who learned to drive a car first using a stick shift have a deeper, truer feeling for driving. Their senses are heightened. They learn to listen to their car and to feel the road. They are aware of everything when driving. They assume nothing.

But baristas who use the automated espresso machine assume everything. Just as Paul pointed out, they blindly assume every shot they pull is perfect. No need to look at the shot to ensure it’s pouring like honey from the machine. Just stick the cup under the spout and go about your business. It’s as if Starbucks Baristas feel entitled to a perfect shot because the automated Verisimo machine is never wrong.

Paul also outlined the uber-importance of the “perfect shot” at Starbucks. As Paul says, the secret to making a great-tasting espresso beverage is in the shot. He goes on to detail all the nuances that go into pulling the perfect shot of espresso on a manual machine. It’s hard work and a little time-consuming to pull a perfect shot of espresso. Really it is.

But for consistency reasons—which has allowed the company to open new stores and staff them at breakneck speed—Starbucks simplified the espresso beverage making process.

Theatre Appreciation
In Howard’s book, POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT, he talks glowingly of the Italian Baristas he saw during his Espresso Epiphany trip to Milan in 1983. Howard wrote,

"The barista moved so gracefully that it looked as though he were grinding coffee beans, pulling shots of espresso, and steaming milk at the same time, all the while conversing merrily with his customers. It was great theater.”

It’s obvious—theatre is important to Howard’s vision of recreating the Italian coffeehouse experience all over the world. But what good is theatre if the customer can’t see it. When placed atop the counter, the tall automated espresso machines Starbucks uses block customers’ view of the Barista. Paul’s recommendation of designing and rolling out low-profile machines is one way to solve for this problem. Here in Austin, TX there is a Starbucks that’s experimenting with a low-profile espresso machine—see grainy image here. This certainly helps solves the sight-line problem.

Like Actors, the Best Baristas Command Stage Presence
This “Loss of Theatre” issue isn’t about the evil automatic machine vs. angelic manual machine. It’s an issue of flair. (And no, I’m not talking about the Office Space version of “flair.”) I’m talking about flair as in stage presence. The best actors command stage presence. They have confidence in their abilities and know when they are onstage, they must be captivating.

Starbucks Baristas behind the espresso machine need to command a greater stage presence. They need to be confident and actively engage customers. Forget the expeditor/floater on the labor deployment chart. Baristas behind the bar need to call down the line to take orders. They need to take charge. They need to initiate conversation with every customer. They must command stage presence.

One of the selling points that convinced Starbucks Sr. Leadership to greenlight automated espresso machines is that they wouldn’t detract from the in-store theatre but rather, ADD to the in-store theatre. Supporters inside Starbucks of the automated machines reasoned by making it easier to prepare beverages, it would also make it easier for Baristas to talk with customers. That’s because they wouldn’t be totally consumed with beverage prep. In other words, Baristas would now be able to command greater stage presence as a result of using an automated espresso machine.

Again, it’s an issue of flair. Starbucks must give permission to store partners to showcase their flair and personality while on the bar. In many ways, Starbucks crimps the personal style of its store partners. Store partners must be in official company dress code. They must hide piercings. Visible tattoos are a no-no. Starbucks puts many rules and stipulations in place which signals to Baristas they need to conform to set standards. This conformity leads to uniformity.

Not sure what you think, but I want my Starbucks beverage to taste the same from city to city. I do not want the Starbucks barista making my beverage to act and look the same from city to city. I want baristas to act with flair and not as if they don’t care.

The Big Finish
Bringing back the theatre and romance to the Starbucks experience goes well beyond the automated espresso machine issue. I’m recommending Starbucks use the Semi-Automatic approach and place automatic espresso machines only in the highest volume locations. For the other locations, I believe Starbucks needs to use the manual espresso machines. But really, it’s more an issue of people than machines.

Starbucks needs to have Baristas go through a “Starbucks Theatre Appreciation” class. Teach them how to command stage presence while behind whatever espresso machine they use. Trust their Baristas enough to give them permission to show more of their individual personality while on the job. Train every Barista first on the La Marzocco manual espresso machine and second on the Verisimo automatic machine. To bring the romance and theatre back, Starbucks must teach their Baristas the arts and sciences of being an authentic Barista … like their beloved brethren in Italy.


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I don't get all the fuss. I know I'm posting here on the First Church of the Brand. But the fact is, Starbucks' brand went downscale to accommodate growth. It's not all that different from what Mercedes has done with automobiles. The purists will lament the loss of prestige that was once there. But those customers, while they may represent major influencers, have been replaced by the masses who in sum have been far more profitable.

As much as I have thought Starbucks was a lost cause in the specialty coffee world for the past decade, I find it laughable that we're talking about "death of the brand" at the same time they are making hand-over-fist record profits.

Ok guys... the more I learn, the more I ask...
Would customers find a difference in beverage taste between one made with an automated machine vs. a manual one? Would customers BELIEVE there's a difference in beverage taste between the two?
How much customers value the "theater" vs speed?
Why not a "hybrid" machine that is fast but leaves the barista room for his performance?

Sharp comments ...

G Salcido ... in Paul's post, he offers up a variety of espresso making solutions including a machine that puts some "manual" back into the automation. So yeah, that's a possibility.

The only data I have that says some customers value speed over theatre is anecdotal. What I do know is if a Starbuck store is churning out 90+ beverages in a 30-minute span then it is FAST-PACED. Its very difficult to churn out 90+ beverages per half-hour on a La Marzocco machine. It can be done. But the Baristas behind theses machine churning out these beverages at a fast-clip are elite Baristas.

Some of the more discerning customers and Starbucks employees say they can taste a difference between shots pulled from a La Marzocco vs. a Verisimo. The difference in taste isn't as dramatic as say fresh from the oven homemade cookies versus packaged cookies. But some people can perceive a difference.

Swag ... this Howard Schultz memo has gotten a lot of play in business circles. And you are right, its not like the Starbucks brand is on life-support. It's relatively heathly. But Howard wants to reclaim the shapely figure the business once had. All Paul and I are doing is suggesting a few thoughts on how Starbucks could reclaim the shapely figure it once had. Doesn't mean its a DO or DIE situation.


Also, it's not only the machines blocking the view... there's also the ugly shelves/fridge/display thing with sandwiches and bottled drinks, and the extra high table where the baristas place the drinks when they are ready...

Does Startbucks track sales per sq ft?

SBUX does track sales per sq ft. I'm not sure what they are. Some Wall Street types can probably offer up a agood estimate.

I doubt the average Starbucks drinker would be able to tell if their drink was made by an automated or manual machine. Starbucks has become so ubiquitous that I believe "truly discerning" coffee drinkers are choosing slower-paced local cafes, rather than the factory-like atmosphere of a Starbucks.

Also, ask around: most folks in Pittsburgh believe Starbucks drinks are really just sugar with foam on top. The "coffee" element is kind of absent from their street profile.

Of course, I don't believe Starbucks SHOULD be changing. That's like suggesting McDonald's wants to rethink the way they make hamburgers, to appeal to the discerning carnivores of the world. Like McDonald's, Starbucks is the "safe, fast choice" when you need a hot drink -- it's not "your local cafe" any more than McDonald's is "your local diner."

These posts are great, but can you provide another insight? Since Paul and you both worked at Starbucks...was this something that you previously had input on? If so, please let us know if this is a rehash of your original leanings to stay manual; or a new insight based on Howard's memo.

In terms of theater, my experience is that the Barista is now as well known as the "fry man". The order taker is now the leader of the experience; hands the coffee side of an order off to "production"; never to be heard again until they shout out the finished product. Granted this is viewed from "high volume" storefronts but I've never seen anything elegant about the process.


NW Guy ... the decision to use the Verisimo machines at SBUX was based upon operational impact, financial impact, and brand impact. From an operational perspective, these machines were tested in the Pacific Northwest and it passed. Meaning, Starbucks was pleased with the training and store-level execution of the automated Verisimo machines. Financial-wise, the Verisimo machines increased the store-level profitability because fewer “bad” shots were discarded and less coffee was wasted.

As for the impact to the brand … this was where there was lots of debate. Those discussions were more high-level and didn’t involve middle managers. I do remember a pivotal meeting that occurred between the store managers of the Verisimo test stores in Seattle and Howard Schultz. From what I heard, Howard asked a lot of questions and listened to the store managers talk about the Verisimo and its impact on the customer’s experience. Ultimately, Howard, who is the keeper of the Starbucks brand, decided that the Verisimo made the most sense for the company to pursue to meet its business goals.

Unfortunately, I think you are right. The Barista position at Starbucks is not the “glamorous” position it once was. It is more like the “fry guy” position now. That’s why I believe to bring back some of the theatre and romance back, Baristas need to command a greater stage presence

My comment runs along the lines of that of NW Guy. Can you call someone who is obtaining espresso shots from an automated espresso machine a "barista"?

Is it not true that the term "barista" implies that the one obtaining espresso from a machine is a craftsman, or even an artist, who has some sort of expertise in ensuring that the beverage in question is of the utmost quality? I would say that one who is obtaining espresso from an automated machine does not qualify as a "barista" in the most romantic sense of the term.

Also, G Salcido is right on about "the ugly shelves/fridge/display thing with sandwiches and bottled drinks". That thing looks like it belongs in a 7-11.

Do you thing the war is over? Starbucks may already have lost.

You can make an argument that when they started adding drive-thrus at many locations it may have cause a subtle perception shift in the publics mind. It moved to making coffee a commodity.

Looks like McDonalds saw this crack in the armor and is moving fast. In my last trip to grab a bite in the morning at McDonalds I overheard one customer talking about how the coffee was just as good as Starbucks. They were moving lots and lots of coffee that morning. I was shocked.

Starbucks is stuck in no-man's-land.

We keep hearing that they want to go back to their roots and bring back the romance & theater, but at the same time they want to expand from 13,000 shops to 40,000 worldwide.

Personal, engaging experience and massive expansion don't usually mix too well. If you don't want to commodify your brand, don't be so focused on tripling your number of outlets.

I think Starbucks needs to rethink its goals before it does anything else. Only then can it start to make the proper tangible decisions at the individual store level.

Ryan ... I like where you are going with this. Starbucks needs to find new ways to measure success. Measuring success by store count only helps to acerbate the ubiquity and commoditification issue.

I'm still gnawing on what other success measurement would be better for Starbucks to use.

However, as we've been mentioning ... Starbucks is a publicly traded company and as such, success measurements aren't always determined by the company. Instead, its Wall Street that determines the success measurements.

It's hardly practical to consider refitting all the stores, ao why not use the Verisimo for the drive-thru window and the La Marzocco for the in-store audience?

There are more problems with Starbucks than good marketing. The company used to really care about the people who worked for them but somewhere along the lines that changed to lip service.

I worked for Starbucks as a barista three years ago because I was told they were a great company to work for, but after two months on the job I had yet to actually be trained. The store I worked at was the highest volume stores in Seattle and I was put on the bar. The theater you talk about is hard to do, it takes confidence in your skills and in your team. Without a good team you have nothing. Putting on a show with no rehuersal is a stuation bound to fail. (sure I knew how to make coffee but I had never been trained how to make Starbucks coffee and there is a differnce--although I never found out what it was exactly because I was never trained and then I was fired for not knowing how.)

You talk about the customer expirence... I think Starbucks customers would benifit from being helped by employees who are well trained. Anyone who knew anything was not on the floor. We learned if you were anyone at Starbucks you certanly weren't helping customers.

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