Solving Starbucks Problems : LOSS OF THEATRE

This post continues the series where Paul Williams and I, two former Starbucks marketers, offer recommended changes based upon Howard Schultz’s email to the Starbucks leadership team. “When we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact…

This post continues the series where Paul Williams and I, two former Starbucks marketers, offer recommended changes based upon Howard Schultz’s email to the Starbucks leadership team.


“When we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocco [automated espresso] machines.”Howard Schultz email

Paul, you are onto something when you recommend Starbucks go “Semi-Automatic.” Let’s build upon this “Semi-Automatic” idea a little more.

We know busier Starbucks locations have different needs than do more laid-back Starbucks locations. Speed of service is obviously going to be more critical in busier, higher-volume Starbucks stores than in slower ones.

Customers visiting higher-volume locations probably use Starbucks not as a third place to linger, but rather as a third space—an impatient moment of respite for those grab-n-go-must-get-back-to-work customers. Using the Verisimo, an automatic espresso machine, in these fast-paced locations would not detract from the customer’s experience because their experience is based upon the need for speed.

While lower-volume stores nestled deep into neighborhood side streets have a customer base that chooses more often to linger and use their Starbucks as a place to gather together their thoughts and gather together with friends. An automated espresso machine designed to increase speed of service feels out-of-place in these slower-paced Starbucks locations.

Starbucks should put the Verisimo automated espresso machines in higher-volume stores and put the La Marzocco manual machines in lower-volume stores.

Sure, that would wreck the entire Barista training process Starbucks has developed. Starbucks would then have to go back and redesign their training manuals and classes to teach store partners (employees) how to use BOTH machines. Is it asking too much to cross-train Baristas on how to use both a manual and an automated espresso machine? I don’t think so.

Stick Shift versus Automatic
Speaking as a former Starbucks Barista, I was trained on the manual La Marzocco machine and when I used the automated machine, it was an easy transition to make. My background pulling manual shots of espresso—all the while steaming milk, capturing drink orders and preparing the full gamut of drinks—prepared me for using the much simpler automated machine. It’s a similar transition we make from driving a stick shift manual transmission car to an automatic car. If you can drive a stick, you can drive an automatic. If you can use a La Marzocco, you can use a Verisimo.

Feelings of Entitlement
Paul is right-on when he says “Expertise is no longer required” with automated espresso machines. Same goes for driving a manual transmission car. Expertise, beyond knowing the basics, is no longer required. It’s easy. Just start the engine and put the gear to drive and you’re off. However, when driving a stick shift manual car, you must listen to the rev of the engine to know when to shift gears. It takes a certain level of expertise to master driving a stick.

People who learned to drive a car first using a stick shift have a deeper, truer feeling for driving. Their senses are heightened. They learn to listen to their car and to feel the road. They are aware of everything when driving. They assume nothing.

But baristas who use the automated espresso machine assume everything. Just as Paul pointed out, they blindly assume every shot they pull is perfect. No need to look at the shot to ensure it’s pouring like honey from the machine. Just stick the cup under the spout and go about your business. It’s as if Starbucks Baristas feel entitled to a perfect shot because the automated Verisimo machine is never wrong.

Paul also outlined the uber-importance of the “perfect shot” at Starbucks. As Paul says, the secret to making a great-tasting espresso beverage is in the shot. He goes on to detail all the nuances that go into pulling the perfect shot of espresso on a manual machine. It’s hard work and a little time-consuming to pull a perfect shot of espresso. Really it is.

But for consistency reasons—which has allowed the company to open new stores and staff them at breakneck speed—Starbucks simplified the espresso beverage making process.

Theatre Appreciation
In Howard’s book, POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT, he talks glowingly of the Italian Baristas he saw during his Espresso Epiphany trip to Milan in 1983. Howard wrote,

“The barista moved so gracefully that it looked as though he were grinding coffee beans, pulling shots of espresso, and steaming milk at the same time, all the while conversing merrily with his customers. It was great theater.”

It’s obvious—theatre is important to Howard’s vision of recreating the Italian coffeehouse experience all over the world. But what good is theatre if the customer can’t see it. When placed atop the counter, the tall automated espresso machines Starbucks uses block customers’ view of the Barista. Paul’s recommendation of designing and rolling out low-profile machines is one way to solve for this problem. Here in Austin, TX there is a Starbucks that’s experimenting with a low-profile espresso machine—see grainy image here. This certainly helps solves the sight-line problem.

Like Actors, the Best Baristas Command Stage Presence
This “Loss of Theatre” issue isn’t about the evil automatic machine vs. angelic manual machine. It’s an issue of flair. (And no, I’m not talking about the Office Space version of “flair.”) I’m talking about flair as in stage presence. The best actors command stage presence. They have confidence in their abilities and know when they are onstage, they must be captivating.

Starbucks Baristas behind the espresso machine need to command a greater stage presence. They need to be confident and actively engage customers. Forget the expeditor/floater on the labor deployment chart. Baristas behind the bar need to call down the line to take orders. They need to take charge. They need to initiate conversation with every customer. They must command stage presence.

One of the selling points that convinced Starbucks Sr. Leadership to greenlight automated espresso machines is that they wouldn’t detract from the in-store theatre but rather, ADD to the in-store theatre. Supporters inside Starbucks of the automated machines reasoned by making it easier to prepare beverages, it would also make it easier for Baristas to talk with customers. That’s because they wouldn’t be totally consumed with beverage prep. In other words, Baristas would now be able to command greater stage presence as a result of using an automated espresso machine.

Again, it’s an issue of flair. Starbucks must give permission to store partners to showcase their flair and personality while on the bar. In many ways, Starbucks crimps the personal style of its store partners. Store partners must be in official company dress code. They must hide piercings. Visible tattoos are a no-no. Starbucks puts many rules and stipulations in place which signals to Baristas they need to conform to set standards. This conformity leads to uniformity.

Not sure what you think, but I want my Starbucks beverage to taste the same from city to city. I do not want the Starbucks barista making my beverage to act and look the same from city to city. I want baristas to act with flair and not as if they don’t care.

The Big Finish
Bringing back the theatre and romance to the Starbucks experience goes well beyond the automated espresso machine issue. I’m recommending Starbucks use the Semi-Automatic approach and place automatic espresso machines only in the highest volume locations. For the other locations, I believe Starbucks needs to use the manual espresso machines. But really, it’s more an issue of people than machines.

Starbucks needs to have Baristas go through a “Starbucks Theatre Appreciation” class. Teach them how to command stage presence while behind whatever espresso machine they use. Trust their Baristas enough to give them permission to show more of their individual personality while on the job. Train every Barista first on the La Marzocco manual espresso machine and second on the Verisimo automatic machine. To bring the romance and theatre back, Starbucks must teach their Baristas the arts and sciences of being an authentic Barista … like their beloved brethren in Italy.

Series Review
Introduction post
LOSS of COFFEE THEATRE: Paul’s post and my reply
LOSS of COFFEE AROMA: My post and Paul’s reply
LOSS of STORE SOUL: Paul’s post and my reply
LACK of MERCHANDISE FOCUS: My post and Paul’s reply
LOSS of IDENTITY: Paul’s post and my reply