Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Local Starbucks Take Part in Course Correction

Can the company which introduced many Americans to gourmet coffee right their own ship? Starting Wednesday, we'll see.

Each and every Starbucks store in the United States will close Tuesday night for three hours. The stores will close at 5:30pm and most will not reopen until Wednesday. The company has decided to close it stores and mandate that employees and baristas attend a retraining session. The Seattle-based chain wants to get back to basics, focusing on actually making coffee and customer service. The correction comes after years of mega-expansion and beating us all over the head with Starbonics (tall is small? what's venti, and why is it the largest size? that's not really a macchiato, is it. no, no it isn't).

The chain lost its way by focusing on all manner of non-coffee related items like breakfast sandwiches and stuffed teddy bears. One could just as soon find Norah Jones' new CD as a finely drawn espresso shot. While expanding like gangbusters, the chain lost the power to exclaim "You've arrived!" for a neighborhood and even for entire towns. Not unlike acquiring a Whole Foods, getting a Starbucks meant your town was robust, sophisticated and had residents who didn't think twice about spending $3.00 on some steamed milk and espresso. Now, the stores use automated machines to pump out espresso drinks and the term barista is applied too loosely at most of the 7,000+ stores in the U.S. For perspective, there are over 2,000 stores in California and more than 60 in D.C., one for every 9,500 residents; highest ratio among states. The ubiquitous interior design and unrelenting expansion caused Starbucks to occupy an unsavory niche within popular culture and worse, the quality of its coffee and espresso drinks slowly declined. Read it all on one of the longest running Starbucks related blogs, Starbucks Gossip.

My question is: will visiting the Starbucks at 18th and Columbia ever be any different than visiting Starbucks at R and Connecticut Ave, N and Connecticut, K and Connecticut or 19th and Connecticut? There are so many stores on the 42 bus route alone! Long ago, local indie coffee shops surpassed Starbucks in coffee quality and availability, store ambiance, accessibility and customer care. (See the ongoing Coffee/Riot series for details.) No way Starbucks will ever stack up against Tryst, Murky or even Heller's Bakery. All Starbucks are the same to me. The 18th and Columbia location might as well be on 6th Ave in New York, or 6th Street in St Louis. I'll give them credit for slowing down, getting rid of food and retraining their staff. But I fear the once fun and quirky anomaly which taught a lot of us about coffee quality and variety, has become just another corporation intent on growing their business and making bank at the expense of all else. Maybe I'll reconsider when they start actually selling that $1 cup of coffee.