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Drip by drip, Starbucks lost what made it shine
I still remember my first Starbucks moment. It was in 1988 at a new mini-size coffee bar in Illinois Center. I recall being mystified by the strange name, not catching the connection to a character in "Moby Dick." Oh, the aroma and rich taste carried me back to past cappuccinos and espressos enjoyed in Italy and in 1960s Greenwich Village coffeehouses.
Twenty years ago, it was love at first sip. Like every prisoner of love, I went from downing one cup a day to three or more. How, I wondered, had I gone more than 40 years without a midafternoon break or even a "for no reason" indulgence?
Today those memories are like bitter, stale grounds. These days the breaks aren't fewer but are often enjoyed somewhere else. That early Starbucks mojo is no more. My disillusionment set in about three years ago, but the company's ballyhooed "Starbucks experience" died even earlier, killed by a growing bureaucratic culture.
Starbucks' recently returned chief executive officer, Howard Schultz, finally stopped denying that fact last week with the announcement that the company was applying the brakes on the Starbucks express growth strategy and closing 600 of its 16,000 stores worldwide.
When did the romance sour? As in any relationship, the first clue is usually minor but the start of a string of slights. The shops ditched their $1 bagels and baguettes in favor of $2, high-calorie lemon loaves, muffins and brownies.
Then came the luncheon sandwiches and salads, which were attractively packaged but sold for $1 to $2 more than my sense of fair value. The reasonable $2.95 pretzel ham & cheese made a brief appearance but probably was killed by some chief financial officer unimpressed by its meager profit margin.
I've pondered why my dissatisfaction is now shared by so many other once intensely loyal customers. For the first dozen years, Starbucks was a destination stop. It had enormous cachet and street cred. It became the new place for business meetings and the preferred rendezvous for match.com date auditions. Today, Starbucks and hip live on different planets.
Starbucks is now my default option. I find that old thrill in smaller, owner-operated cafes such as Intelligentsia on West Jackson Boulevard, Sip in West Town, Pause on Berwyn, Wicker Park's Filter (R.I.P.) and my Istria Cafe in Hyde Park.
Starbucks once defined the coffee market but has lost control of its brand. Its ubiquity has killed the joy of discovering a new hangout.
Starbucks is now found in hospitals, nearly every airport and countless corporate cafeterias. These outlets and an army of small restaurants serve Starbucks coffee simply to bask in its reflected glory.
I've had their brew in all these sites, but it's never as good as in the cafes, reading the paper or catching up on work. The quality can't be controlled in such settings. The result: a watered-down version of what the company touts as the "Starbucks experience."
There have been other disturbing signs over the past five years. Staff turnover seems epidemic; I seldom see the same faces on repeat visits. I read about poor staff morale.
And staff seem less knowledgeable about the coffees and each blend's character. Today it is less a "calling" than a job interchangeable with one at McDonald's or Macy's.
Baristas, I've learned, no longer draw the espressos. Some efficiency expert must have realized that it slows down the line. Barista culture remains very much alive at places such as Intelligentsia.
I've grown tired of Starbucks' superior attitude that allows them to charge more and offer no customer rewards such as free cups or unlimited Wi-Fi. I've found those simple perks at places such as Panera Bread (my new choice for bagels) or Caffe Baci. ING cafe gives me a free fifth cup after every four purchases. Starbucks has rolled out a rewards program recently but is merely playing catch-up.
The breakup moment came earlier this year. Schultz had taken back the leadership reins and was promising a return to coffee greatness. In his now-famous letter to investors and business partners (not customers, mind you), he promised visible changes for the better.
The new design look of its store at Jackson and Wabash and the one across from Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chestnut Street are a change for the worse. Gone are the comfy, oversize chairs and distinctive wooden tables.
In their place are stainless steel tables and chairs that look as though they came from Office Liquidators. They send a harsh message to customers: Get in, get out, don't linger. And customers seem to be doing just that. Clusters of coffee drinkers in conversation are no more.
Starbucks seems to be in a period of identity crisis, caught between two cultures, needing to change but unsure of what new path to pursue. One Saturday afternoon last April, I sat in a cafe on West Division Street (the old, comfy kind). I spoke with a longtime customer like myself about Schultz's new marching orders and the good old 1990s.
He looked up from his cup and said, "It's a tragedy that the young kids won't know the difference, and will never know how good it once was."
Maybe Schultz needs to read "Moby Dick" again. He joined Starbucks in 1982 as the idealistic Starbuck. But in his relentless drive to pursue the White Whale of coffee supremacy and please his Wall Street masters, he now seems more like the character with the ivory peg leg and harpoon.
Tom Mullaney is a freelance arts and business reporter.