Is Malaise Brewing at Starbucks?

Starbucks's success in expansion has opened the door for smaller coffee shops in the Seattle area to carve out a niche.
Starbucks's success in expansion has opened the door for smaller coffee shops in the Seattle area to carve out a niche. (By Ted S. Warren -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

SEATTLE -- Starbucks has lost its soul and does not know where to find it.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz lamented as much in a recent internal memo to his executives. He wrote that as the world's largest specialty coffee company has expanded from fewer than 1,000 locations to about 13,000, its stores no longer even smell like coffee because of "flavor locked packaging."

His memo grieved, too, over the loss of "the romance and theatre" of traditional Italian espresso makers, which have been replaced by automatic machines. Shultz wrote that the new machines, while more efficient, block customers from watching as coffee drinks are made and sharing what he called an "intimate experience with the barista."

"One of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past," he wrote. "Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee."

The leak of Schultz's lost-our-soul memo has generated buzz on business pages. But it has occasioned only a shrug from the caffeine cognoscenti in Seattle, which has more coffee shops per capita than any other major U.S. city.

For most Seattleites, what Schultz called "the watering down of the Starbucks experience" is stale news -- akin to reports that the Seattle SuperSonics (which Schultz sold last year) are a losing National Basketball Association team or that Seattle winters are wet.

"Like, duh, I have felt that way about Starbucks for 10 years," said Sean Seery, 36, an acupuncturist who sat one recent morning outside Victrola, a popular independent coffee shop on Seattle's Capitol Hill.

Inside the coffee shop, it was un-Starbucks business as usual:

A chrome-covered, vastly complicated, all-manual espresso machine yowled and hissed. The joint reeked of fresh roasted coffee. With spiky hair, great gobs of eye shadow and garrulous ways, two baristas ground beans for each new shot of espresso. Slowly and carefully, they created lattes in heavy china cups, each drink with its own distinctive floral pattern.

Around the store, customers hunched over laptops, sponging up free Wi-Fi, slowly nursing their espresso investments. A scarred, but serviceable, upright piano stood off in the corner. It is played, sometimes with virtuosity, by stragglers coming in off the street.

Alone at a small table sat James Bullock, 45, a software consultant who said he often spends much of his workday at Victrola. With almost no prompting, he said that he had been thinking off and on throughout the morning about Schultz and the dilution-through-growth of the Starbucks experience.

Starbucks was founded in Seattle, which remains home to its corporate headquarters, as well as to Schultz, whose wealth is estimated by Forbes at $1.1 billion.

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