How has Starbucks Helped and Hurt the Speciality Coffee Industry

Starbucks: The Big Gray Elephant In The Room

{Disclaimer: As I’m writing this, I’m sipping on a wonderful cup of Sugar Skull coffee from Onyx Coffee Lab (based out of Northwest Arkansas), out of a Starbucks mug that I picked up for my wife while visiting Boston, MA last year.}

Let’s admit it, in the specialty coffee world, Starbucks is the big “gray elephant in the room” and their name tends to evoke plenty of emotions and opinions both positive and negative. Some could say, you either love Starbucks or hate them – okay, hate is a bit strong, maybe a strong dislike might be a better description.

But what if it were possible to have both, some positive and some negative feelings about this global coffee giant?

I would suggest that Starbucks has both done a lot to help the specialty coffee movement by introducing a higher quality coffee and coffee shop experience to the American coffee consumer, while at the same time possibly hurting it, by essentially miseducating that same coffee consumer on the most traditional of espresso drinks. I’ll talk more about these things in a moment and tell you why Starbucks isn’t the expert on all things coffee.

If you’ve read any history on the Starbucks Coffee company, then you know that their origins were very similar to many Third Wave, independent coffee bars that we see today. They started as a small whole bean coffee, tea and spice retailer in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle specifically) with just a handful of stores.

Did you know that in the beginning (back in 1971) they didn’t even serve coffee by the cup out of their stores? This didn’t start until sometime in the early ‘80s.

Book cover for How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At A Time - Pour Your Heart Into It

“Pour Your Heart Into It” by Howard Schultz, Starbucks Chairman & CEO

Original founders Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl never had any intentions of the company growing into the behemoth that it is known to be today, that vision came later when current CEO and Chairman Howard Schultz came into the picture. Without going into a long essay about their history, Howard Schultz basically had visited a lot of Italian coffee bars while on trips to Italy for various trade shows and he saw the incredible role that the local coffee shop played in the communities. He realized (in his own words, in his book “Pour Your Heart Into It – How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At a Time”) that Starbucks could play a vital role in bringing that model of the community speciality coffee shop to America.

He had a very huge and very corporate plan for the company from the very beginning. Plans to role out hundreds of stores within a matter of just a few years. Complete with groups of venture capitalist investors, boards, and corporate infrastructure (some of which would make even the most novice business enthusiast jealous).

How They’ve Helped

As I stated above Starbucks has done a great deal in introducing a higher quality of coffee and a higher expectation of a solid coffee shop experience. They’ve been instrumental in transitioning the American coffee drinker from low quality gas station coffee, Folgers or Maxwell House, to a much higher standard of what decent coffee should be. They played a part in introducing the masses to lattes, cappuccinos and espresso. They showed people what it could be like to have a relationship with the individuals that prepare and serve the coffee (known as Baristas). So, even though many modern day independent coffee bars will roll their eyes and turn their nose up at Starbucks, you can’t deny their contribution to coffee culture in America.

How They’ve Hurt

Now, before anyone begins to call me a Starbucks fan based on everything I’ve stated above, it’s my opinion that Starbucks has done a lot to give the public a false sense of understanding coffee and some of the most basic coffee drinks. They’ve turned many of their most loyal fans into high maintenance, custom coffee ordering robots (thats a topic for another article), that are more concerned with being seen toting around a white cup with a green logo on it then the actual quality of the contents in said cup.

I can’t fault them too much for the symbol that their cup has become though. From a business and marketing standpoint (and I must say I’m interested in both), job well done marketing team. Nailed it!

But here’s where the rub really comes for me, Starbucks has successfully made up … yes, you read that right… flat out made up a lot of drinks that are simply incorrect versions of their original and traditional counterparts.

Let’s take for instance, the hugely popular Caramel Macchiato (of which our shop fulfills a lot of requests). A traditional macchiato is 2 ounces of espresso marked (Macchiato in Italian means stained or marked) with a small amount of steamed milk/foam. Starbuck’s Caramel Macchiato is essentially a vanilla latte (did you know its made with vanilla syrup and not caramel) with caramel “marking” the top of the drink. It’s a tasty drink for sure and wildly popular, but it has miseducated the customer as to what a traditional macchiato is.

You should see the look on a customers face whenever they order a “macchiato” and you give them a 2oz demittase  with a small amount of milk foam on top. [Training Note:] Always politely confirm with the customer what it is that they want.

The final disservice that I feel that Starbucks has done to the consumer is over emphasized the amount of sauces and syrups that they use in their drinks. I would challenge anyone to look me square in the eye and tell me that they can fully taste the espresso in their drink, over the five pumps of mocha, the three pumps of white chocolate and the 24 ounces of milk in their Trenta size cup (30 ounce… also Starbucks made up word).

So, to wrap things up, like I stated at the beginning, Starbucks has a polarizing presence in the coffee world, but regardless of where you stand on liking them or hating them, they have a place in the progression of speciality coffee.

And if you come into Zetêo Coffee and order a Grande, quad  iced double shot with breve …. we’ll do our absolute best to make it in such a way that will bring a smile to your face and make you glad you came to visit us.

It’s always our goal to make everyone feel welcomed and valued, whether you’re a card carrying Q-grader, a coffee newbie or a skilled Starbucks customizer. We just like drinking coffee and making friends.

We would love to know your thoughts on what’s talked about here. Please be sure to leave your comments below!