Friday, April 11, 2008

The Starbucks What’s What


If you are reading this post today expecting that doing so will result in some savvy new information about the corporate policy changes or stock prices at Starbucks, you are barking up the wrong blog :) What I'm writing about are opinions, based on new experiences, and old! that I would like to share with you as a sometimes consumer of this maniacal coffee chain.

So, here's what's what. After what seemed to be a recent complication of practices--folks in line asked to pre-order, baristas filling out tiny cheat sheets with the pre-orders, baristas wearing head mics, new honey lattés (?)--it's as if the great flood arrived and wiped the slate clean. Starbucks is turning back to its roots!

Remember when they added the brewing of the breakfast blend way back, for people who wanted a milder coffee taste in the morning? You know, for those of us who don't want their daily addiction to sizzle their taste-buds off? The stores also change the non-breakfast blend daily so you get to "mix it up" and taste new flavors each day. You'd read the "Today we are brewing..." sign and order by flavor name, Gold Coast or Café Verona or Café Estima. But let's be honest. No one ever tastes the difference, with the exception of Sumatra being the most brewed-from-middle-earth-like than the others.

Well guess what, if you haven't heard, Starbucks has now eliminated that and added instead the “Pike Place Roast” blend. I met this nostalgic attempt at remembering the early coffee days in Seattle with a private tip to their marketing hats along with an indifferent “whatever.” But sure, of course I’ll try it one time…that is my job as an active consumer, right? Not that I really had a choice. Even though the sign said "We will be grinding and brewing Pike’s Place Roast every 30 minutes. Other coffees will also be offered throughout the day," other coffees had not been brewed, so we drip buyers really had no choice.

I got my typical “tall in a grande cup.” This because I always add a lot of whole milk and half-n-half to my Starbucks to combat this equivalent to a coffee sludgehammer. And funny enough, after the whole milk was poured into my Pike Place Roast, would you believe my targeted coffee color* needs were prematurely met, beFORE pouring in the half-n-half? (*This color can be referred to in CMYK as either dark wheat, sand, bread, or the formula magenta 20, yellow 40.) So I thought this was already pretty interesting.

(By the way, if I don’t love Starbucks why do I go through this? Because it’s the only coffee shop near USC campus that takes credit cards. Simple as that. Drink this or deal with the office’s “Alta Office Services” machine that was made in like 1962.)

As I walked the short distance to campus I took a sip of the PPR and oh my gosh, my lips uttered an unexpectantly cocky “Well well well,” you know with the same inflection the producer gave to Dustin Hoffman when he stood up to Dabney Coleman for the first time in “Tootsie.” It's like saying "You’ve got balls, Starbucks, but you did it, good for you (damn it)."

The pleasure mounted more so when that first sip kinda reminded me of my first latté. Yes, I was one of the lucky ones in this matter. While some people have a transcendent first kiss, I had a transcendent first latté...

It was on a business trip to Seattle in the late 90's. We flew out to do a focus group on coffee and the up-and-coming chai tea. I’d already visited the first ever Starbucks and had a regular cup of coffee there. It was nothing better than I’d had at any other one really. However the next morning I walked over to Post Alley, and wandered into a place I’d never heard of, Seattle’s Best Coffee. It was there that I decided to be a little more coffee-daring, as I was in the coffee capital of the country. I ordered the latté so plainly though, without the de rigueur customization demands, that the barista probably thought I was mentally challenged.

My first latté was the most beautiful cup of coffee & foam I’d ever seen. I gingerly carried it outside to the alley--which overlooked Pike’s Place Market and Elliott Bay--and while the salty, rising fog tickled my nose I sipped and was brought to coffee hallelujah glory. *sigh*

Nah you’re right, that experience was not repeated two days ago when I had my first sip of Pike Place Roast at the Starbucks on Hoover St. near USC. But you know, I was reminded of that, oh because this new coffee blend was so smooth, and it tasted great! without that Starbucksey burned, heaviness that people-sheep think equals good coffee. And when I repeated the experiment this morning, it confirmed there was no flaw. My morning pleasure--and no need for half-n-half--occurred again. Damn you Starbucks! Now I can only pick on your food!

Let's talk about the food.

A Starbucks employee in Northridge, CA recently told me that their breakfast egg sandwiches that remind me of happy Korean deli mornings in NY would be gone by the end of the year. No! Well if I have anything to say about it, the lack of success on this project is not because these sandwiches aren’t 1) tasty, or 2) necessary as a counterpoint to their other food offerings which are probably made with 90% white sugar.

The problem is that some corporate wonder is having the stores sell fairly identical sandwiches; they eliminated the one unique sandwich from the menu altogether. I’m talking about all the egg sandwiches being made of English muffin, egg, aged cheddar cheese, plus something from a pig (sausage, Black Forest ham, or peppered bacon). That's right, each one has the same cheese. Oh sure there’s one egg white version with turkey bacon and some reduced fat cheese, but it's still cheddar cheese! So why the fabulous Spinach Florentine sandwich (English muffin, egg, Havarti cheese, spinach, herb spread) was deleted early on, I’ll never know.

Hmm, also the scones at the east coast Starbucks were great, especially the cinnamon chip (I miss you), but out west they're all bad, all covered in some version of white sugar muck, or in the case of the blueberry scone, actual white sugar. Even the always-reliable marble pound cake has been modified in some way, as if they removed the butter in the recipe altogether. I can’t eat that! But I can, and will probably now more than ever, drink the coffee.

Until we eat again,

1 comment:

Alan Huynh said...


Right on the money.

Had each Starbucks had unique sandwiches it may have worked out. The big problem for me personally was the smell.

When I walk into Starbucks in the morning I want to smell the coffee not eggs and cheese from like at a McDonalds.

Also I think they gotta get rid of all that clutter near the register. All they should have are gift cards rather than gum, packaged cookies, and featured music.