Thursday, March 20, 2008

A grande serving of what?

There had to be a secret message encoded in Howard Schultz’s presentation yesterday, because even Mike Tyson would know better than to pin Starbucks’ turnaround to rickety measures like adding a new coffee roast or installing a newfangled coffee maker. And let’s not forget the pledge to do more for the environment and the startup of a social-networking site. But maybe the real message of his address to shareholders was blurred by all the specifics. If you step back and view the elements as a package, it’s clear Schultz is taking a bold gamble. The one-time coffee-carafe salesman is trying to infuse the brand with more showbiz than the industry has seen since the heyday of eater-tainment.

Schultz described Starbucks’ purchase of a company that makes a new type of coffee brewer, a device called the Clover, as the most dramatic of the steps he and other execs detailed for investors. The machine supposedly makes a cup of coffee superior enough to justify a price of more than $2.50. Schultz said he saw it being used by a place in New York that charged $7 a cup. But how it generates the nectar of the bean may be as important as the quality of finished brew. Starbucks described the machine as a cross between a French press pot and a vacuum-style coffee maker, which provides a bit of a show with every cupful that’s produced.

Similarly, Starbucks disclosed that it’s rolling out a new espresso maker that gives the baristas more control over the coarseness of the coffee grind and the way the milk is steamed. Not coincidentally, the devices are not as high as the machines currently being used, which will allow patrons to see their drinks being made, and possibly even interact with the coffee maker.

Even the new frequent-guest program has some dazzle to it. Guests present their cards to be wowed a little by the service they’re then given. The benefits rendered don’t sound that amazing. Free half-and-half or soy milk? Whoa. But the give-and-take about the freebies does give the counter servers and baristas a chance to strut their stuff a little.

The bland-sounding moves that Schultz disclosed yesterday may prove anything but. It’s a bit of razzle-dazzle from someone who could prove to be a very adept ringmaster.

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Anonymous Christine Richardson said...

It won't matter what kind of machine Starbucks uses or how coarse the beans. They've become no different than any other fast-food place -- the McDonald's of Coffee, Until they change their awful burnt coffee (the "frozen pattie" of the coffee world) -- nothing will change.

April 5, 2008 at 7:40 PM  

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