It seems like whenever I tell someone from San Francisco I work for Starbucks, there’s a moment of internal dialogue behind their face as they decide if they want to say something bad about the company to my face, or just change the subject.
It seems like it’s not cool to like Starbucks aloud, and I can understand that. San Franciscans love their city, and they should. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in America I’ve seen, one of the few that has history and real character.
So I understand wanting to lock arms and keep Starbucks out, and the formula retail codes that make it hard for chains. They want to protect their city and they see chains as a threat, including Starbucks. I don’t take it hard when they call us “The Evil Empire,” either. Perhaps that’s because I am true evil, now.
I got into this with a guy at a bar while I was in San Francisco, this week. He was wearing a Pete’s Wicked Ale T-shirt, a brand that seemed to just evaporate in the last 10 years. I was wearing a business jacket and a pressed shirt; he had his hair braided and a beard that hung to his chest. He asked what I was doing there and I told him, Starbucks bought La Boulange and I was here to help renovate some of the stores.
This is an invitation to get killed, as La Boulange is a San Francisco-based cafe and bakery business that Starbucks acquired last year. People who don’t like Starbucks can feel validated if the company makes changes to La Boulange that somehow corporatize it, or damage its small-feel. In fact, if you don’t like Starbucks, you may be secretly hoping it will make these changes, so your time spent disliking the company isn’t in vain.
So here I am in San Francisco, with consultants we’ve hired to help fix up the older La Boulange stores, touring around the city in a shuttle bus we rented, getting out and taking photos, measurements, going into their back rooms and prep areas.
La Boulange is small enough that it can do lovely, little things you can’t do on a larger scale. The last night we were there, they held an employee appreciation party: basically, 500 people invited to a party where they cook for their employees, three or four times a year.
The stores have loving details, such as jars of jam for sampling, and jars of olives and cornichons at the condiment bar, just for the taking.
So now with Starbucks owning the brand, and replacing its food menu with La Boulange-branded pastries, the first question most people ask is what are they doing to the La Boulange stores? Are they taking them over as Starbucks?
Because Starbucks has a dress code policy, including limits on piercings and tattoos, the LB employees were naturally concerned this would apply to them. (And fortunately, it doesn’t.) I hope for the employees any changes will be good.
In the end, people make brands. Brands make you feel a certain way. If you have good people making good decisions, the brand will continue to serve the customers as they expect, in a humanly way. No one likes the idea of big companies: big companies don’t remember your name, and don’t answer your call when you have a complaint.
You should try to stay small, Starbucks, La Boulange, and San Francisco.