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Starbucks Deserves Praise, Not Criticism

January 31, 2012 By: Robert Plotkin

Now that the world’s largest coffee chain has decided to roll the dice and enter the alcohol arena, it’s been getting even more attention than usual. Starbucks’ decision to start serving wine and beer at select locations has not entirely been met with a joyous outcry. I certainly enjoy bashing multinational corporations as much as the next guy, especially when one of their herd does something outrageously stupid. Then I start talking trash about it, beginning with my first cup of coffee. And that cup typically is from Starbucks. Political correctness be damned, I’m a loyal fan!

Sure, I occasionally chuckle when ordering a “tall” coffee, because it’s actually their small, amateur size. Loyalists forgive the misrepresentation because it doesn’t really hurt anyone, and it is arguably a bigger small cup of coffee than what most kiosks serve to their caffeine-starved clientele. Interesting enough, back in the day Starbucks offered three sizes: Small (8 ounces), Tall (12 ounces) and Grande (16 ounces). The small proved to be too small, so it was dropped. The starting lineup then adjusted to the Tall, Grande and Venti, which is 20 ounces.

I’ve been chided and admonished about my admiration of Starbucks. Some suggest that I’m just another unwitting victim of their marketing genius. After all, how can any reasonable consumer justify paying more for a cup of coffee than a full breakfast at McDonald’s? “For Pete’s sake, it’s just a cup of coffee!”

“You get what you pay for,” I reply smugly as I get into my Lamborghini.

Recently, Starbucks raised the price of its coffee, which unleashed a rash of Java-fueled ranting. While I don’t relish the idea of paying more for my daily fix of Joe, I know enough about how the world works to appreciate that coffee is a commodity, and when its price goes up that increase gets passed on down the line. Gnash your teeth as you may, there’s nothing that can be done about it. This is just as true in the drinks business. Spirits, beer and wine are all commodity-based products, and their wholesale costs have been rising steadily. Have you checked the price of gas lately?

Well, anyway, I’m at my local Starbucks almost every day, sometimes twice daily. I figure that makes me as much of an expert on the company as anyone working for them. There are five reasons why I hold them in such high regard:

1) First, we are a country that adores its Joe, and Starbucks has taught us more about quality coffee than Yuban or Folgers ever did. Every day, Starbucks features coffees from Sumatra and Ethiopia, Jamaica and Hawaii. One of the few times I really grasp the concept of a global economy is when Starbucks brings the flavors of the world to my neighborhood. I hope the chain brings the same global focus to its alcohol selection.

2) Second, Starbucks has taught us that there are more creative ways to prepare coffee than to let it sit on a burner and turn rancid. Before Starbucks, lattes, ristrettos, doppios and macchiatos were unknown commodities in the United States. At one time, coffee drinkers could only find espresso or cappuccino at Italian restaurants, and even then there was no guarantee that the waiters felt like making them. Starbucks has elevated Americans into a people who understand how to order a cup of coffee. You know what? We’re better for it.

3) Third, Starbucks is a marketing marvel. The crew at the top must never sleep. It seems as if they’re regularly test-driving some new ingenious drink: a green tea latte or pumpkin pie frappacino. What’s genuinely impressive is how consistently great these drinks are. I should know: The baristas regularly offer me tiny samples. And I take them. Additionally, Starbucks’ display cases are crammed with a bevy of options, such as bottled waters and brewed teas. I’d mention their baked goods, but those are off limits for me. Perhaps in the near future I’ll be sipping on another kind of brew!

4) Fourth, Starbucks places an enormous value on retaining its employees. That means they treat them well. Their training programs are superb and varied. Managers regularly give their staff evaluations, which ultimately allow them to reach their fullest potential. The company encourages its people to stay and makes it clear how they can grow within the corporation. From what I’ve seen of large corporations, that’s exceedingly rare.

5) Finally, Starbucks has created a contemporary incarnation of the Irish pub — soon with alcohol (in select areas, anyway). “Hey, I’ll meet you at Starbucks.” It’s a safe, comfortable and familiar place where one can go and just hang out. Sip and dream, as a friend of mine likes to say.

Like Kleenex, Xerox and Band-aids, Starbucks has evolved from trademark to commonplace noun. Alcohol sales will simply add another feather to the corporation’s cap. From one entrepreneur to another: Kudos.


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