Starbucks and the Means to an Experience

A playground for coffee lovers

The enormous doors swing outward, and I’m thrust into the 15,000-square foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery. This building is massive. While a glance to the right reveals a whole bean scooping table and an eclectic gift shop, my attention is drawn ahead to the copper varnished Probat roaster, situated within footsteps of the lively café bar. The sheer size of the building is reminiscent of an old train depot, yet Starbucks maintains its defining ambiance and familiarity.

A queue wraps around the bar, and upon approaching the register a Barista greets me with an attentive smile. This Starbucks location churns out plenty of pour-overs and single-origin brews, but it’s certainly no stranger to those customers yearning for an extra pump of syrup or this month’s seasonal, sugary treat. There’s an implicit atmosphere of acceptance created—Feel free to order what you want, be it an 8oz Clover brewed Ethiopian or a Smoked Butterscotch Latté.

The waiting area at the end of the bar provides a few moments to observe the building from another angle. After a short wait, a barista calls my name and carefully delivers my beverage on an elegant wooden server. As I make my way down the concrete steps to the seating area, I notice that everyone around me appears to be equally as enthusiastic for that first sip. I gravitate towards the back corner and settle upon a couch; the perfect place to enjoy a cup of coffee leisurely while gazing upon the copper plated contraptions and wooden furnishings throughout the massive building.

The coffee is quite good, but it’s not the best cup I enjoyed during my recent trip to Seattle.

So why am I still consumed by my visit to Starbucks Reserve?

Most likely it’s because Starbucks crafted a solid cup of coffee and focused on providing a superior service/atmosphere, resulting in an unforgettable experience.


An observation from Cat & Cloud

Specialty coffee trailblazers Jared Truby and Chris Baca’s recent live podcast at the KEXP/La Marzocco Café brought forth an exceptional, yet easily neglected idea. This concept is one that builds the foundation for Cat & Cloud’s training program:


Thematically, the Cat & Cloud coffee podcast centers around this notion of how coffee professionals and enthusiasts alike can create the best possible coffee experience.

While specialty coffee certainly appreciates this idea, the industry may occasionally lose sight of it. A disregard for the experience surrounding the beverage in addition to a hyper-focus on the coffee itself often times results in a lackluster experience.

What Starbucks does extremely well

Starbucks may be a contentious company in specialty coffee circles, but they are irrefutably focused on the use of coffee as a means to an experience.

Their mission statement embodies this:

“to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

Specialty coffee has a lot to thank Starbucks for; they’ve been a constant force in popularizing coffee over the past three decades. In doing so, they’ve developed a mission which inherently focuses them on using coffee as a means to an experience.

A major impediment for newcomers curious about specialty coffee is the ostentatious display surrounding the coffee. This display fabricates an underlying assumption of what is expected of customers in a shop (i.e. drink the coffee the way we prepare it, regardless of your preferences).

There’s a big difference between encouraging customers to expose themselves to alternative flavors and pressuring them into ordering the new Panamanian Geisha, especially if they show no interest in doing so. The resulting effect of the latter scenario is alienation: an implication that a customer does not belong if they don’t enjoy the floral nuances and delicate acidity of your favorite coffee.

Why would anybody choose to visit a shop where they feel uncomfortable due to implicit pressures and a lingering feeling of potential judgment?

Some people enjoy exposing themselves to unfamiliar flavors, and others enjoy the same flavors they’ve been tasting for decades. We can work to listen better and hopefully understand what the customer is truly seeking in order to provide the best experience for them. A pumpkin spice latté to one customer is a single-origin espresso to another: they are both catalysts for an experience.

The Starbucks experience revolves around the customer, and their Reserve Roastery in Seattle creates is no exception. Elegant copper and wood furnishings, enthusiastic and attentive baristas, an eclectic gift shop full of Reserve branded merchandise; all of these work to elevate the experience and engage the customer, regardless of their chioce of beverage.scannable-document-on-jan-27-2017-10_07_48-pm-copy-2

What we can learn from Starbucks

Specialty shops frequently provide phenomenal service, but there is a lot we can learn from Starbucks. Namely, how to improve our use of coffee as a means to an experience. We can focus on manipulating coffee to create the ideal experience for each customer, regardless of how refined their palette is or what their drink of choice is.

Starbucks Reserve is the epitome of this: they draw in customers with varying levels of background in coffee, and they manipulate their ingredient to provide each individual with a superior experience.

The idea is to execute in the preparation of the ingredient without losing sight of the how it fits into the larger objective of creating an exceptional experience.


Concluding Thoughts

This concept of using a product as a means to an experience is certainly not limited to specialty coffee. Many industries could benefit from viewing their methods through this lens.

Baristas employ coffee as their means to an experience, and each customer has a different preference. While a mocha may hit the spot for one customer, a batch-brewed blend or a single-origin espresso may be the key for another.

Cooks employ different foods as their means to an experience, and each customer has a different preference. Some people like their steak medium-rare; some like it well-done. Some people like their eggs scrambled; some like them over easy.

We are all seeking engagement and connectedness, but we experience it in different ways. Acknowledging this should be a prerequisite for manipulating our ingredient to do something special for our customers.

Starbucks Reserve embodies this concept of a customer-centric experience through the manipulation of their ingredient, and they can teach us a great deal.

Further explorations

  • What are the means to the experience that you are creating? What is your ingredient for creating something special?
  • Tonx has a phenomenal article on ostentation and specialty coffee.  He discusses the sad reality in many shops: “the implicit message is if you don’t like this fancy coffee, if you don’t think it tastes good, you can probably chalk it up to your lack of sophistication.”scannable-document-on-jan-27-2017-9_54_21-pm

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