The New Starbucks
On a recent trip to Seattle I stumbled across the latest offering from that ubiquitous coffee chain that was born in this very city, Starbucks. If you find yourself looking for something to do while in The Emerald City and in need of a "coffee break", the Tasting Room is worth your time. And this from someone who doesn't drink much coffee.
Opening its doors late last year, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room is a far cry from any Starbucks you’ve seen before. At 15,000 square feet, with soaring ceilings and massive copper plated Probat roasters (said to be the creme de la creme), a retail area curated with shiny coffee related accoutrements, a Tom Douglas pizza restaurant, teak furniture and finishings, multiple bars, wifi lounge areas and a library (I kid you not), you will feel like you have arrived at Willie Wonka’s favourite coffee joint. Don’t be alarmed by the WOOOSH sound rushing above your head. That’s just coffee beans moving from one place to another.
This Starbucks is all about master roasters and small-batches with options from Colombia to Hawaii and beyond. There are printed menus with tasting options that range from lemony to chocolatey and is that brown sugar I detect? Is there such a thing as a coffee sommelier?
Around the time I was new to the west coast, back in 1987, Starbucks opened it’s first Canadian location in Vancouver. Back then it was a unique and oddly fascinating consumer experience. I couldn’t put my finger on why I loved it; but experience was the key word. It appeared to be coffee focused, but it was about more than that. With its funny way of ordering – will that be a tall or a grande? – to-go cups and inviting furniture, it felt like a club. And we all signed up for a membership.
And then of course, as with any outrageously successful brand that decides to engage in global domination, being on every street corner in every corner of the world, it became a whole lot less special. The more Starbucks expanded, the more pedestrian it was. The $5 coffee became ordinary.
Somewhere along the way Starbucks became the brand to hate as we all sought out independent cafes in our home town, which were authentic, community focused and of course served better coffee.
But Starbucks is all about re-invention. They may have started out selling coffee beans, but they quickly expanded to offer every coffee drink imaginable along with coffee mugs and makers. From Starbucks to McDonalds, every big brand knows you’ve got to stay fresh if you’re going to stay relevant. They don’t always get it right, of course. Remember last year’s La Boulange? Starbucks’ partnership with the Parisian style brand to expand its offerings of pastries seemed to miss the mark.
With the Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, Starbucks hits the bullseye. Located on the same block as the city’s latest food hall it represents one of today’s hottest retail food trends: The market. Think Harrod’s food floor. Think farmers’ market. The Starbucks Roastery is to coffee what Eataly is to Italian food.
The underlining key to success wasn’t the theatrics of the room (fantastic) or the latte (good) or the fennel sausage sandwich on a soft pretzel (very good). It was the service. Sitting at the bar, I was hooked when I met Kristie from Texas, pictured above, who served me breakfast. Her middle name is Brittanica when it comes to the facts surrounding her job and the products she sells. She knows about the mechanics of the coffee roasters, the flavour nuances of the various beans and what you can read in the Starbucks library. Because she’s read it. She proudly reported that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz visits “on most days”.
Starbucks appears to be returning to its roots. It is once again about serving high quality coffee, etcetera, in a re-invented, modern environment. Just as it did back in 1971 when it opened its first location at Pike Place Market, just nine blocks from the new Roastery, it’s in touch with what a lot of people want. People want the best quality, to be part of a community and great service. People want an experience.
If you can’t get to Seattle, don’t fret, in the days to come you can expect to see similar versions of The New Starbucks in a big city near you.