Starbucks and the plastic valve

The plastic valve is called FlavorLock™. It’s a barely noticeable, plastic disc inside a bag of coffee that lets aromatic gasses out, but prevents oxygen from getting in.

I can’t figure out who invented the technology, but it changed everything for Starbucks. Before, the coffee would be roasted and delivered to stores in paper bags. We’d empty the coffee into drawers behind the counter, label each drawer with a stamp to denote the variety, and write the expiration date with a marker.

The coffee only had seven days before it was no longer fresh. That meant brewing  or selling it as whole bean, or possibly marking it out on the eighth day.

The FlavorLock valve extended the shelf-life of the coffee considerably, to where Starbucks was able to sell it in grocery stores, and begin shipping it around the world. It allowed Starbucks to open stores almost anywhere.

But of course, with the advances in technology like this, we gave something up. First, is the romance of having the barista weigh, bag, grind, and label the coffee for you. We had scales on the counter, and even sold bulk spices, like ginger and chicory.

My first manager taught me the right way to bag a pound of coffee: where to place the stamp, how to fold the top down so that it stayed tight. For me, it was the essence of pride in your product: how it was prepared and handed over to the customer.

With the valve, we also lost a lot of the aroma of fresh coffee in our stores. Through further advances in technology, it was no longer necessary for baristas to brew coffee for Frappuccino™ base. Instead, we received it in a Tetra-Pak with the coffee already in there, pre-mixed.

This was seen as an incredible advance forward (and it was), because previously, we had to brew all the coffee ourselves in the stores, for the Frappuccino. This tied-up the brewer, required the barista to transfer the hot coffee to a plastic container, refrigerate the coffee until it was the right temperature, then measure and mix the coffee with the Frappuccino base, and last, transfer the mixed base to pitchers, labeled with the expiration date.

Invariably, stuff got measured wrong, or the coffee got added to the base before it was cold enough, and this resulted in problems. The mix got knocked over in the walk-in refrigerators, decaf got labeled as regular, not to mention all the space it took to stack the chilled coffee in the walk-in. It also required special procedures on how to quickly chill the hot coffee in an ice bath for instances where you ran out.

Another advance in technology was the automated espresso machine. Even the word “automated” was hard to swallow, because it pulled the barista out of the mix, the handcrafted nature of preparing espresso.

But it was that handcrafted element that became hard on some people’s arms and wrists, with all the repetitive motion of fitting the porta-filter into the brew head, then knocking out the spent espresso puck in the knock-box. The knock-box was also loud, and many baristas I worked with wrapped the box too hard when they knocked out the puck.

But the spent pucks also contributed to the aroma in the stores, and some customers would take the used grounds home, for their gardens.

We often think the old days were better, somehow. Maybe that’s because we know we didn’t appreciate them as much as we should have, when we had the chance.

Technology grants improvements: some newfound benefit or convenience we either wanted, or didn’t know we wanted until it became available. But as it gives, it takes. You can’t replace the smell of something real.


Note: I didn’t fact-check this post, so take it with a grain of salt (fine, or coarse). There’s limited information on the Internet about FlavorLock and all of the details about Starbucks in here are from my memory, which is also limited.

About pinklightsabre

William Pearse publishes memoir, travel journals, poetry and prose, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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5 Responses to Starbucks and the plastic valve

  1. alesiablogs says:

    I used to love going to grandma’s house in rural Kentucky. She was always cooking usually from morning until the sun went down. There was nothing like going to her house and smelling what was cooking in the kitchen. Everything was made by scratch, but I can’t help to think if she was alive today she might have liked some things that would have made life in the kitchen for her a little more convenient. SIGN……


  2. Thanks for the memories! This is a wonderful review of changes over time which are bittersweet. Certainly conveniences are convenient, and can help make businesses succeed. Let’s just keep on drinking coffee and keep the economy hot and liquid!


    • My pleasure! Thanks for sharing them with me, through reading…it’s funny how much we forget. I’m wanting to share some of these memories with my colleagues at work, who don’t know what it used to be like back in the day. Take care and enjoy your weekend. – Bill


  3. Sebastiaan says:

    Personally i can see why automating just about everything is a necessary evil, especially once you consider the ridiculous lines in Starbucks coffeeshops these days. However, i think that probably 9 out 10 barista’s there have no idea how to actually make an espresso with a lever operated machine or how to figure out the grind, dosage or tamppressure anymore. I for one would love to wait a couple minutes extra for a shot prepared and pulled traditionally. Love the story =)


    • pinklightsabre says:

      So glad you enjoyed the story! Thank you. I get what you mean, about being wiling to wait longer to have it pulled properly. Too bad we can’t slow the world down and do it that way. Enjoy your week, friend! – Bill


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