Starbucks: Coffee and Confusion

Starbucks is a corporation in transition. It’s not handling the transition well. It’s not that I miss the most salient and profitable aspects of the old Starbucks. I was never interested in the silly overpriced coffeesque drinks: tall iced caramel macchiato, tall double chocolate chip frappucino, etc.

Coffee, black, no sugar, for me. That’s not to say I want the same coffee every time. I used to like the fact that a Starbucks would offer me a choice of coffees. There were usually at least three: a mild or medium, a bold, and a decaf. That seems to have disappeared in favor of all Pikes Place blend all the time.

Starbucks should strive for an image of expertise in coffee and the distinctive nature of each coffee. The packaging of their whole bean coffees, with an appropriate illustration for each coffee, helps here. I suggest that they credit the artist responsible for each illustration. This would reinforce the image of craft and creativity.

I have expressed the above views at the Starbucks Idea site.

One thing that’s well done is the Starbucks card. I bought one today and got a free coffee. The card gives me discounts, and it gives me free wireless – somehow.

The wireless is confusing, or at least it has been over the last couple of days at the West Roxbury location. Yesterday, I was able to just use the wireless network without having to do anything other than turn on my laptop. Today, it seemed that I was able to use the T-Mobile network, but only after getting an AT&T account by entering details from my Starbucks card.

The bottom line is that I’m confused by Starbucks. I can’t help comparing SBX with Rao’s. Scott Rao opened his coffee place in Amherst, MA, while I was in grad school there, and it was always way more popular than the town Starbucks. Scott has grown the business: in the last year I’ve seen his coffees at the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, at a Boston branch of WholeFoods, and at the Boston Cheese Cellar not a mile from my house.

I know what Rao’s stands for. I am confident that Scott will retain focus and quality as he grows the business. I don’t know what to expect from Starbucks.

2 thoughts on “Starbucks: Coffee and Confusion”

  1. Andrew: Long a aficionado of Rao’s Coffee and Amherst long time resident, I agree with your observations of the cafe both historically and particularly in the last ten years after Scott sold it to Jeff Waskiewicz who has broadened the market and acceptance of Rao’s Coffee at home and abroad. Fortunately Rao’s appears to exhibit no interest in Starbucks which is apparently an expression of Northwestern elite society.

    Order on line or at the counter, the same good coffee can be had wherever you are. My daughter treasures her frequent gift shipments of Rao’s coffee in Phoenix. Drop by some time soon, say hello to the more serene and obviously wise assemblage of townies and students engaged in writing books, theses, and talking or playing chess. You will feel as though you were in a neighborhood in Paris or Vienna. Dick Howland

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