Starbucks 2.0

Starbucks To Begin Sinister ‘Phase Two’ Of Operation read the headline from The Onion. That was 2001, and Starbucks was heading for world domination. Seven years later, domination is accomplished, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The stock price has slumped badly, reflecting drops in both sales and general affection for the chain and all it represents.

So, yesterday evening, in a highly-publicized move, Starbucks closed all of its nearly 7,100 locations. A sinister phase two, as The Onion prophesied? Apocalypse imminent? Or simply a company-wide huddle to “teach their employees how to make coffee,” as several snarky bloggers put it.

The official word from Starbucks spun it, essentially, as a publicity stunt designed to demonstrate one company’s commitment to quality…

At the training sessions, managers instructed workers to make sure it takes between 15 to 19 seconds for each espresso shots to pour from the machine so they come out like honey dripping from a spoon. They urged workers to stop resteaming milk and only steam fresh milk, to let espresso shots sit for no more than 10 seconds and to pour foam onto drinks instead of scooping it with a spoon. Managers also told baristas to thank customers, smile and make eye contact when they hand off their drinks. Many of the teaching points already were official policy but weren’t being practiced consistently, managers said.

This morning I decided to test their new brew and sure enough, right there on a chalkboard behind the counter it said, “We promise your coffee will be perfect every time.”

As I stood in line, I glanced over at the lanky young clerk standing behind the pastry case. He smiled at me in a calm, closed-lipped sort of way, and I smiled back. When it was my turn to order, I asked the smiling girl behind the counter for a single espresso, served in a real demi-tasse instead of a paper cup. In Starbucksian – a dialect similar to Italian – a “single” is called a “solo,” but the girl didn’t correct me or ask for a clarification, which was already a notable improvement. She simply smiled at me in the same way as the pastry kid.

I handed her my money, and she smiled again. As I waited for my drink, I happened to glance at the pastry kid again. Smile. Another glance at the cashier girl. Smile.

A minute or so later, the barrista placed my espresso on the counter. I added half a teaspoon of sugar, swirled the cup to mix it in and then sipped it down.

It was tasty. A fine cup of espresso.

The Stepford smiles of the staff made me wonder about that Onion article, but mild creepiness aside, job well done.