The speed of coffee and music, marketing serene

img_0019My 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.




Categories: musings

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24 replies

  1. Everything is moving too fast; technology, life, news. I bought a green 1940’s Esterbrook fountain pen and bottle of blue ink on e-bay and put it to paper for the first time this morning. I already can’t wait for it to run out of ink so I can refill the sac and perhaps spill a bit on my desk.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah the ink and fountain pen! Wow, that is REALLY old school! Goo on you. Sounds nice. I tried going back to manual typewriter but it didn’t work out. Perhaps another day. Nothing like that sound, reminds me of being a kid and playing with caps, making gun sounds BAM BAM BAM!


  2. I always remember going to Seattle in 1991 and popping into a Starbucks somewhere downtown (must have been near Pioneer Square) and going, How cool! Really good coffee in a groovy place. Now I bypass Starbucks and Peets in favor of a little hole in the wall in Noe Valley, SF, which is a lot like the early Starbucks. The circle of life …


    • ’91 in Seattle had to have been the heyday of those street-side espresso carts. They were here when I arrived in ’96. I know the Pioneer Square one you talk about. Man, what a hard store to manage, all the sorts coming in and out of there, using the bathroom for weird things. I like the hole in the wall places myself, but they’re hard to find where we live. And I guess I still feel some comfort and kinship in Starbucks, having kind of grown up there. Like my kids are now, but just different. Bill


  3. I looked down a row of cashiers at Christmas one time — they were all smiling and working quickly, efficiently — and thought, wow, what a great little army we’ve built. It’s a good feeling, though it sounds corny. It really is good to feel part of team though, or that you’ve put together a good one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I retired last spring after working as a cataloguer for 35 years, in two different libraries. What’s a cataloguer, you ask? Libraries have catalogues of their stuff, so people can look things up, put in requests, etc. Human beings actually create those databases. In a way, being a cataloguer is like belonging to a secret society. There are elaborate rules that are constantly being revised, and special computer programs, and a jargon. And cataloguing is always under the gun by administrators to prove its worth, because it’s quite costly, so a certain paranoia develops among its practitioners. I still miss some of that weird, obscure work culture (but not all of it).
    As for coffee, it’s much more than a hot, brown liquid.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. i really hate the loss of the human connection


  6. This piece has such a sad ring to it to me, especially the end where you describe a little of what early Starbucks was like before it became a global giant. I confess to disliking them – I can’t drink coffee and all their alternatives, from hot chocolate to cold drinks to summery chilled ones – are so sweet and plastic-tasting. Of course, they were also unpopular here for a good while because they didn’t pay any tax for years …
    Glad you’ve managed to work through your situation. You sound very happy in your new role – long may it continue 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “Every new, good idea really just feels like a pain in the ass.” Brother, you said it.
    My youngest has suddenly started drinking coffee, at 15. I didn’t start until I was, oh, 19, 20. I’m convinced it’s because she’s been weaned on ice capps and vanilla thingies. Coffee is just another commodity.
    So where is Starbucks now on the cool/corporate spectrum?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, and your Tim Hortons, in your story (which I am still loving). Starbucks and cool, I am the wrong guy to ask on that but in my opinion, they maintain a certain cool. They work at that and I think they deliver. But I’m arguably no authority on “cool.” I even put it in quotes, see. Not cool.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Putting “I don’t care how good your idea is, don’t mess with my plan,” back to analogue, and purpose into one cohesive narrative makes it hard to make a cohesive comment so I will go with a non sequitur. You’re current profile picture reminds me of D.H. Lawrence’s passport picture.

    I’m guessing you might not be able to see it so a second opinion might be necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah that photo is odd but I thought fitting. I like the green in the background. It’s our den. Spent $160 on albums last night, bought five, only made it through side one of the first. Described the playlists you made me to my friend Anthony and we’re going to get into them next Friday.


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