From Lattes to Websites: The Coffee Identity

Don’t you hate it when you’re craving falafel but the only thing that’s nearby is a Whataburger, so you get you some Whataburger, but your Buffalo Ranch Chicken Strip Sandwich with a sweet tea just ain’t as amazing as usual because, deep in your heart, you just wanted some falafel with tzatziki sauce and hummus?

Never? Huh, that’s odd.

Anyway, last week I spent some time talking about the state of Starbucks, the iconic coffee giant, which has been a key player in the shaping of the coffee industry since the 90s, and if you remember well (it’s okay if you don’t because, let’s be honest, I barely do), I said at the end of my post that I no longer really consider Starbucks a coffee company but more of a general drink company.

So obviously, that begs the question, “What’s the difference?”

Now the entire purpose of my From Lattes to Websites paper was to figure out what made coffee shops in particular successful. There are many companies in Austin that I could have included in my analysis just simply because they sell coffee as part of their operations, but inclusion of such companies would have been misleading and a waste of time as their mission is not coffee. In addition, coffee sales are not the only characteristic that makes a coffee shop a coffee shop.

So what does make a coffee shop a coffee shop then?

Well, back while I was still in school, I determined that several categories were integral to the identity of a coffee shop:

  1. Appearance
  2. Ambience
  3. Products
  4. Taste
  5. Cost
  6. Computer Friendliness
  7. Space
  8. Seating
  9. Service
  10. Website

The thought was that if a store did not perform in the above categories satisfactorily then it was unlikely to be a success without operational or branding changes.

Nowadays, the categories still stand, but as is usually the case after eight years, this list can been shortened considerably. Today, I think we can say that a successful coffee shop performs well in the following categories:

  1. Space (How big is the store? What is the seating like? How is the lighting? What kind of vibe does it put out? Does it look clean or drab? Is it loud or quiet? What’s the parking situation?)
  2. Products (What types of coffee drinks does it offer? What non-coffee drinks does it offer? What about food? Whole beans? Non-consumable merchandise? Are they more expensive than other shops? Are the products any good?)
  3. Service (How are the baristas? Are they nice? Quick? Do they make a lot of mistakes? Are they helpful? Is the store open at appropriate times?)
  4. Technology (Is there a website? What about a social media presence? Do they provide a variety of payment options? What about rewards points? Can I comfortably bring a laptop to the shop?)

Now taking a look back at Starbucks, the company has usually performed well in each of these four categories, but in an attempt to remain relevant among ever-changing consumer tastes, I think Starbucks got a little lost when it comes to it’s products, and I believe that it is negatively affecting their performance in other categories as well.

A quick look at the company’s Instagram account will show you what I mean. The company is constantly touting it’s new drink offerings, such as their new fruit-infused lemonade, cascara cold brew, unicorn Frappuccinos, beer, wine, flavored whip cream, and pumpkin spice lattes to name a few. It’s a whole lot about sugar and indulgence and very little about coffee and caffeine. The largest promotion that Starbucks had this past year for its coffee was when it released the new blonde espresso, which was somewhat hilarious to me as “blonde” espresso is what many smaller, independent coffee shops have been selling as their standard espresso for years now.

Dumb move, Starbucks. Dumb move.

Also, if you take another look at the Instagram page, you’ll notice it has very little attention on the actual Starbucks stores. For a company that took a whole bunch of pride in being the “third place” (a place for people to go outside of the home and work/school), it seems like it has completely forgotten about that aspect of the business. Community has become a second thought. It’s all about the fad drinks now.

And this can be felt in the stores. The last time I visited one, I did not feel comfortable lingering. Between the long lines, cramped tables, lack of coffee aromatics, etc, Starbucks is better suited for individuals getting coffee on the fly, and with the new ordering service through the Starbucks app, grabbing a coffee is faster than ever. There is no need to hang out anymore.

Also, in light of recent questionable behavior by Starbucks employees, who really wants to stick around one of the stores anyway? You might just risk harassment and arrest.

To put it simply, in my mind, Starbucks has become the fast food joint of coffee shops. It’s a major downgrade from the lofty position it held before as a coffee pioneer and industry leader, but Starbucks isn’t the destination for coffee lovers anymore. It’s a refreshment shop, where people go to quench their thirst and satisfy their sweet tooth. It’s not a place for students or friends or families to congregate. It’s a quick stop on the way.

So just like I’m not going to enjoy Whataburger when I want falafel (bet you were wondering if I was ever going to get back to that, right?), I’m not going to enjoy Starbucks when I want an afternoon cappuccino break. They are two completely different things in my mind.

In looking forward, Starbucks is going to have some tough decisions to make. It is either going to have to take a significant step back from all the frilly drinks, or it is going to have to give up its identity as a coffee company. By picking a side, I think they’ll survive, but if they continue to straddle the divide, the quality of their product and service will continue to suffer and so will the Starbucks name.

With that being said, I’m sure you are wondering how I came up with the four categories of the coffee shop identity, right? Well, check in next week as I discuss more about space and its importance in coffee shops.

Whoot whoot!

The one and the only Pookachino

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