Is the Coffee Really That Good?

There is a saying in marketing about what it takes to sell a product. Sell the sizzle, not the bacon. That, it seems, is what marketers focus on these days — the perception, not the actual product, quality of it or how it will actually help the customer.

A few days ago, my wife and son stopped off at Starbucks to get hot chocolate. That seemingly innocuous event became the lead in to the placement of the last piece of straw onto the back of a far too laden pack animal.

Now, I am no real fan of Starbucks – although I used to be. I do happen to believe that way back when they were not a huge, dense corporate monster and Howard Shultz’ vision of atmosphere and good coffee was still alive, they were a great company and their shops were great places to go. You could actually walk in and get a decent cup of coffee or some other drink that was both satisfying and worth the money. Not only that, you were already in the perfect place to drink it.

What has happened is they got popular. Popular to the point where the speed at which overwrought and harried customers demanded their beverage takes precedence over taking the time to actually make the coffee right. Popular to the point where the “baristas” have been reduced to nothing more than hourly coffee jerks (not “jerks” in the pejorative sense, but soda jerks who pull coffee). Popular to the point where the natural streamlining that occurs when a task has to be accomplished quickly supercedes the vision of what good coffee is and what it means to provide an inviting place to drink it.

As everyone approaches the speed of light to make more money, acquire more things, be better than the next guy and keep their job, it is now the “barista”‘s sole responsibility to execute the transaction alone lest they incurr the wrath of the sales executive late for their first of 20 meetings for the day.

And in that reduction of the process of creating a good product to only the exchange of goods and services for money, the value, caring, pride and commitment has been completely lost. Walk into a Starbucks in Castle Rock now, and you see singular people, heads buried in laptops, a line a few people deep half of which look impatient or put out by actually having to wait and an atmosphere of tension and hurried efficiency.

But the insanity is that those patrons are even there. Because it’s not so bad that people want to drink a cup of coffee and check their email, nor is it bad that some are hurried and need to get their coffee and be on their way. No, the crazy thing is that they actually want to pay money for what they get. The coffee sucks! And the service sucks, too.

I now usually avoid Starbucks in favor of Java Guru. Part of it is a principle of eschewing the corporate behemoths for the more friendly and local businesses. But another reason is because over the last 4 or 5 times I have gone to Starbucks in the last 3 or 4 months, each time the experience has been less than satisfying. Either they have discontinued a good product (decaf mocha frappacino), they are out of something (7 layer bars) or they give me the wrong drink (more on that in a bit). If I go to a place that touts themselves as having the best drink and the best atmosphere, that’s kind of what I am expecting. With Starbucks, it doesn’t seem like you get either any more.

They have tried. They closed the stores for three hours to “teach” the “baristas” how to make a good cup of coffee, they purchased the manufacturer of a new coffee machine called The Clover which if used properly can produce the absolute best cup of coffee from any brand of bean. This is done by using time, temperature and dose (amount of coffee) and fine tuning those elements based on the type and origin of the coffee used. They’ve even purchased completely new espresso machines at one of the stores here in Castle Rock. They are so proud.

But all that is just trying to bump up the sizzle and not the bacon. You have to have good bacon first to even think about calling attention to the sizzle. And the bacon ain’t there. In a recent Wired magazine article, the author went to one fo the stores with the new Clover machine. Having tasted the outstanding coffee it could produce, he wanted to try it “in the field.” The result: the coffee from The Clover sucked as bad as that out of the brewpot next to it. Sizzle doesn’t bacon make.

I submit the following for your consideration. A few days after my wife and son went to get their hot chocolates, she and I went to get the same. It had been a particularly long and out of the ordinary run of rainy days, it was cool and we had a few hours to ourselves together so decided a hot chocolate would be just a little extra “niceness” added to our time together. We had wanted to go to Java Guru (my suggestion, of course) but they were closed, unfortunately. So it was off to Starbucks (we were north, so driving all the way down toCrowfoot Valley Coffee didn’t really appeal to us.)

We ordered “two grande hot chocolates”, paid at the drive through and drove off while they cooled. About half way home we give them a taste. Mine tasted like hot chocolate but there was chocolate and whipped cream so I was easily fooled. My wife’s on the other hand tasted not at ALL like hot chocolate and more like coffee.