What is wrong with Starbucks?

Talk about your favorite cafes, local barista events, or plan your own get-together.

#1: Post by AlexKilpatrick » Feb 13, 2013, 4:29 pm

I don't mean that in the rhetorical sense. I have been making my own espresso at home for a couple of months now, and have been very happy with the results. I haven't been to a Starbucks since I started making my own. I was in a Barnes and Noble last night and decided a latte might be nice. However, it was vile and completely undrinkable. Kind of a weird bitter, milky combination. I noticed I didn't hear a grinder or a milk steamer and saw that they were using some kind of superautomatic.

I decided to stop off at a real Starbucks just to see if the super was the root of the problem. I (bravely/foolishly) ordered a double espresso shot. It was served in a paper cup. And it was just as vile as what I had at the other place -- just pure bitter.

So my question is what is fundamentally wrong here? I'm guessing B&N doesn't really want to hire baristas, so they just use the super-automatic machine and don't care enough to adjust it. But starbucks seems to have all the equipment. Is their problem the beans or the barista? It just seems like with a minor amount of training they could serve good espresso, and Starbucks is known for their excellent employee training. I'm sure Starbucks HQ has coffee experts on staff - how hard can it be to communicate the basics of how to pull a good shot?


#2: Post by pacificmanitou » Feb 13, 2013, 4:40 pm

The answer is... Everything. A few years ago Starbucks changed out their equipment from la marzoccos and Mazzer super jollys to super autos. Mostly because the emphasis is not on espresso but its derivative drinks. The espresso is awful because the coffee itself is too dark. Even in a proper machine, the coffee is too dark to have a taste other than roast notes, and bitter ones at that. The super autos do not help anything either, they make a flat tasting drink. Starbucks is not the pinnacle of espresso quality, more the baseline of acceptability for most people. It would seem that someone in the company is aware of the shortcomings of their gear though. At last check the original pike place location still uses a la marzocco and a real grinder, and they opened a new store somewhere in Europe that uses real gear. Starbucks is, for the most part, to coffee what McDonalds is to casual dining. Acceptable and readily available, but the baseline for quality.
LMWDP #366


#3: Post by BTD1986 » Feb 13, 2013, 4:48 pm

To Starbucks' credit, I (also foolishly) ordered an espresso at a starbucks one time out of desperation, and when the barista saw my facial expression after having my first sip, she offered me a free hot chocolate to get the taste out of my mouth.


#4: Post by jonny » Feb 13, 2013, 4:49 pm

So many things are wrong with Starbucks! Brandon, I think Starbucks is FAR from acceptable. I can't even tolerate the smell. I even refuse Starbucks on road trips because I'd rather be tired. I make a point of knowing (via HB usually) where the nearest reputable shops are, wherever I am. If no luck I take a thermos of drip. An 8 hour old thermos isn't very tasty but it is still worlds better than a cup of sbux!
Brandon beat me to most of this, but I didn't feel like editing...
1. They use the same or very similar, but crappy all the same, superautos that you saw at B&N. The only place that doesn't is the "original" in Seattle.
2. The beans are roasted way too dark. IMO this is not a even personal preference! They are just disgusting pieces of charcoal at that roast level. I sincerely believe, that anyone that really likes this, either or both adds sugar and lots of milk and/or hasn't had anything better.
3. All Starbucks baristas are incompetent. No generalization. This isn't their fault because they don't have good equipment to even learn to begin to make a real espresso. If they do have espresso making skills from some other outlet, they can't employ them if they wanted to because of the superautos and terrible beans.
So here you have one of the biggest paradoxes in coffee. A company that is loved worldwide and has tons of stores and profit, yet they lack all 4 M's! Bad beans, bad machines, bad grinders (decent burr set but rarely ever adjusted appropriately), and bad baristas.
End of story. Forget about them and move on.


#5: Post by pacificmanitou » Feb 13, 2013, 4:59 pm

The only drink I can palate from Starbucks is whatever brewed coffee they have in the "blonde" category. I find it inherently wrong that their lightest roast is as dark or darker than what I usually use at home. I will go there if there is nothing else around, but the drink I get is just a cup of brewed coffee.
LMWDP #366

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#6: Post by peacecup » Feb 13, 2013, 5:05 pm

There are a few canned latte drinks that I take on road trips in lieu of bad espresso. I've tried the Starbucks cans, but they are pretty bad too. I like from Switzerland, Enni, or somesuch.
LMWDP #049
Hand-ground, hand-pulled: "hands down.."


#7: Post by pacificmanitou » Feb 13, 2013, 5:10 pm

My go to for travel is the TWIST, paired with a compact zassenhaus grinder. Someday Id like to get a Pharos or something, but the Zass treats me fine.
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#8: Post by arcus » Feb 13, 2013, 5:11 pm

There are two things I like about Starbucks:

1. Awareness - I think they've done a great job of getting North Americans to realize there is more to coffee than Dunkin' Donuts, etc. As a result, I think they've been instrumental in creating a market for this third wave of high quality espresso we're experiencing here now.

2. Convenience - If you spend a lot of time in airports, as I do, they are very convenient and I can tolerate an Americano w/ some sugar.


#9: Post by AlexKilpatrick » Feb 13, 2013, 5:18 pm

Thanks guys. I didn't notice that regular Starbucks is superautomatic. I just saw the big grinder hopper and thought they were doing things normally.

Of course, I still don't know why they do things the way they do. They charge more than my local place that makes excellent espresso, but surely they have much bigger economies of scale? Thinking of it from a business sense, I can see a number of possible reasons:

1) Costs too much to train baristas (skeptical here, though. I figured it out without much effort)
2) Costs too much to keep fresh beans in stock (use decent supply chain management)
3) Equipment costs too high (I would think supers are more expensive to buy and maintain)

I can't see any real justification for any of these. If it costs the same to make crappy espresso as it does to make good espresso, why not make it good and just get more people in the door?

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#10: Post by bean2friends » Feb 13, 2013, 5:20 pm

We stayed at the Hyatt at Olive 8 in Seattle for the Coffee Fest in September 2011. They had a real espresso machine and grinder and a competent barista. I was pleased and surprised to get good Sumatra each morning and nice lattes - even with some art in the afternoon. But, what's right with Starbucks is they led me to this great hobby and much better coffee than I ever knew existed. I used to enjoy my stops at Starbucks. I actually enjoy dark roasts - I do not find them uniformly horrible. But, suddenly, a few years ago, I noticed that something had changed. I didn't know enough at the time to understand what it was - so I kept trying - different spots while traveling. Then I stopped in a Gloria Jeans one day on the Ohio turnpike and almost before I ordered a latte, there it was. Something is wrong here, I thought. Nondescript and certainly not tasting of coffee. That's when I really started searching on line and found what all you know about super automatics and such. Have you seen how they steam their milk? They have a white plastic tube they stick down in the pitcher and then walk away till the milk is good and hot. I even had a lady one time make me a latte with a real machine - I got suckered because she opened a drawer and pulled out a little packet of pre-ground coffee and stuck it in the portafilter - then she steamed the milk - added it to the woeful coffee and then steamed the whole thing some more till it got to about 250 degrees I guess. I had to throw the drink out. Many times I asked the people at the counter what the difference was between a latte and a cappuccino. They would give me some nonsensical answer, but the truth is, at Starbucks or Gloria Jeans, there is no difference. I have no idea why they have both on the menu.
Anyhow, I am thankful for Starbucks because they led me home to the best coffee drinks I have ever had, wonderful lattes, cappuccinos, Americanos, fresh roasted coffee. It's a wonderful life. The only trouble is now when I travel I have to take my own coffee with me.