My last project at Starbucks was to address the move toward slow coffee, or as it’s called, the Third Wave. A strategy guy shared a deck with us he pitched to the board demonstrating why Starbucks had to act, the competitive threat, the indies doing very cool things, the risk that Starbucks would lose its hold, look “corporate,” uncool by comparison.
I think I looked corporate and uncool by then, too. I wore fitted shirts, got my slacks pressed, parted my hair. I took the same stairs up the parking garage each day, the same route to my desk, the same greeting to my boss. I was phoning it in. I knew we were leaving for Europe the following summer and I had just six months to do a good job and then say goodbye.
But the project, which wanted to test what a Starbucks would look like if it was branded differently and used different brewing equipment, sold different products, put ninjas in as baristas, was much harder than I expected. Because every component in the store intended to be different, there were no processes or resources in place to procure them, it was all custom, and custom is pretty hard.
I spent time with the VP of design in his office, which he kept dimply lit, with lots of books, a big open desk he kept clean. He was left-handed, and when he brainstormed he drew sketches. You could tell he was the real thing.
We shared the same name too, so I liked him. If I had a choice (or realized I did) I would have found a way to work on his team writing or doing creative things, but that need didn’t exist then. Instead, I reminded him when he needed to do things or followed him around to ensure he was on time for meetings. He had to answer to the CEO for whatever we did, and those projects you might think as cool (where the CEO is really involved) really aren’t.
It was this time of year, two years ago, and we had to get the first store under construction, get the design approved, brief the CEO. My boss was updating slide decks well after midnight and on email at painful times, early morning. I felt weird seeing that, feeling like it should be me doing that, but my heart wasn’t it. Day by day I began to recede.
As we got closer to the deadline to lock down the design, ideas started popping up from key executives: this is always good and should be expected, but doesn’t feel that way when you’re trying to lock it down. Every new, good idea really just feels like a pain in the ass.
And where I broke ironically, where the corporate uncool in me came out, was when the VP of design said we should forgo the overhead, canned music and instead just do an old record player.
My mind flashed to how that would be done operationally (like, could we trust people to go out and buy albums and flip them and REALLY? who has time to monitor the records?), but it didn’t matter: the project didn’t pencil, they said go back to the drawing board, and a strange calm set in, the kind that’s normally followed by something bad.
The idea with slow coffee is that people are so inundated with stimulus, with going so fast, they just need to slow down and take their time and wait, to savor. It’s not something that will ever take hold, because the idea appeals to such a slim population of coffee geeks and freaks who have a lot of money, so much they want to give themselves the illusion they have a lot of time, too.
But it’s the same thing I see in my friends Mike and Anthony now, and myself: this sudden interest in buying analogue again, it’s not just the sense it sounds better but more the relief it brings, to settle in and commit to something for 45 minutes. To feel as if, if you get up to leave the room you might be missing something.
And ironic, because after I left Starbucks and took a bus down to Portland and spent a weekend with my friend Loren we went into a coffee shop in his neighborhood, and sure enough: the guys working there had mustaches and tattoos, greased hair, a record player on a shelf behind the bar playing jazz.
I go back and think through the albums I want to buy now as I rebuild my collection, all the titles I’ll buy again in another format—and it’s like the coffee, I’m just paying for the same thing in a different delivery, the thought that for a moment it’s taking me somewhere else—like a book or a film, we all need time to get away.
And at my local Starbucks they have the express mobile and pay program in place, another project that came out of my old team, where people download an app, place their order remote, come in and just grab their coffee and leave.
I sit there watching them saunter in and out and they really like it, the customers. I wonder how it is for the baristas though, because when I started with Starbucks they emphasized connecting with the customer, getting to know their names and their drinks and all that: and now they just make it, put it on the counter, and that’s that.
All that mystique about the brand started for me watching videotapes in a musty-smelling training center in Philadelphia, 1995: the CEO with his slicked-back hair and all his passion for coffee, the thought I could be part of something bigger than myself, that this could be the place for me. And funny how much we identify with our jobs, perhaps we must, to feel like it means more than it does.