A man named Dub Hay works out of a big industrial kitchen on the seventh floor of Starbucks's headquarters in Seattle. Known as the cupping room, the space is furnished with stainless-steel tables and an impressive array of state-of-the art coffee machines. Hay—friendly, stout, with a relaxed manner that belies his spectacular daily intake of caffeine (he even chews beans throughout the day)—holds a position that essentially makes him the high priest of coffee at the world's biggest coffeehouse chain. "Best job in the company," he says matter-of-factly. His cupping-room ritual involves lining up glass tumblers filled with massive heaps of freshly ground coffee and small portions of boiling water. The brew is muddy and outrageously strong, or "cowboy coffee," as Hay calls it. Typically, fellow executives and employees—"partners," in Starbucks-speak—join him here to judge beans from around the world or help craft a new Starbucks blend. Is the aroma reminiscent of grapefruits? Dusty cocoa? Fresh-turned earth? (All good things.) Hay does not sip coffee. Rather, he notes its aroma and gently dips a tablespoon into a tumbler and brings it to his lips, and sucks the coffee in with a swift, loud, vacuumlike pull.
"You have to let it atomize across your palate," he explains. Then he moves on to the next tumbler. Phwwwwwwwwp. When you try thousands of cups a year, he remarks, this is how you know which ones make the grade.
Hay points out a particular steaming glass of coffee in the line. To me, it resembles all the others. But this cup is different: It contains the first light roast that Starbucks has ever sold. Trademarked "Blonde," this glass signals an important event for Hay and his boss, CEO Howard Schultz. For a company whose brand is built on the premise that dark roasts are better than light, it has been a formidable challenge to convince the executive team this wasn't an insane idea and to create a light roast to meet Hay's and Schultz's standards.
"I figured it was going to be pretty easy—in about a month we could knock this thing off," Hay tells me. But he failed over and over again. In addition to trying a multitude of beans, it took 80 different kinds of roast progressions—or rather, variations of roasting time and temperature—to finally hit on the right combination.
Blonde is not merely a strategy to give Starbucks customers a new taste variety. Over the past two years, Starbucks has collected a trove of consumer research to develop what executives there call a "sensory preference" map. As Mary Wagner, head of R&D, told me one morning in December, about a month before Blonde's global unveiling, "If I know a little bit about you, I can tell what you drink, when you drink it, how you drink it, why you drink it, and what's important in your life." In simplest terms, the sensory map shows what the global universe of coffee drinkers prefer—mild or bold; smooth or biting; woody or acidic. Starbucks drinkers, the dark roasters, fall within a certain small area of this map. But 40% of U.S. coffee drinkers prefer lighter, milder roasts. As Wagner explained, "This is huge. So we looked at it as a big opportunity to offer something for everybody." Blonde, in other words, represents the company's big—that is, huge—long-term ambitions and appetite for growth.
Starbucks has now regained its footing after suffering a miserable few years. One explanation is that it achieved this resurgence by rediscovering its roots—good coffee, served expertly, and with an emphasis on what Starbucks employees rhapsodize as the "human connection." But the company's rebound is more complicated, and arguably more interesting, than that. Much of Starbucks's financial rebound (in 2011, $1.7 billion in income on $11.7 billion in revenue) actually results from domestic cost-cutting—closing underperforming branches and wrenching savings from improvements in efficiency and supply-chain distribution. At the same time, the company has been steadily expanding around the globe, especially in China.
Meanwhile, much of Starbucks's reputational rebound is the result of Schultz and his company's efforts to renew a culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation that had fallen by the wayside during a mad rush for growth a few years back. Some of these efforts have taken the form of new products—Blonde lighter roast, or Via instant coffee, which in 2011 reached annual sales of $250 million. Others take the form of community involvement, such as Starbucks's Jobs for U.S.A. program, a recent endeavor to use wristbands as a way of raising funds for job-creation initiatives in economically hard-hit communities. "I've always said there's not a silver bullet or one single thing that creates a solution," Schultz tells me during a candid conversation one afternoon in his Seattle office.
Starbucks is something of a corporate paradox. The company is a multinational giant and growing, especially through branches overseas and new packaged goods in the grocery aisle. At the same time, it is able to introduce risky ideas quickly, systematically, and sometimes idiosyncratically, much like a startup—even though it has more than 17,000 branches and nearly 200,000 employees. How? Schultz has come to believe that size is not a limiting factor. In terms of being innovative, he says, "I think scale can be an advantage. It's not about being big. It's about behavior."
Starbucks's headquarters—housed in a former Sears Roebuck warehouse by the waterfront shipping yards—is a rambling affair that takes up seven immense floors. As you'd expect, there's a Starbucks shop in the building lobby. But there is also, less predictably, a large and bustling Starbucks deep inside the headquarters, on the eighth floor, where Schultz works. Starbucks employees often take a break at this meta-Starbucks and use their own money to drink or eat what they've been selling conceptually from their cubicles. One of the odder aspects of spending a few days at the Starbucks HQ is that someone is always asking if you'd like to have coffee at the nearby Starbucks. Meaning the one down a long corridor on the eighth floor.
I first met Schultz last fall in New York, at a Starbucks in downtown Manhattan, while he was talking up the impending launch of the company's Jobs for U.S.A. program. Schultz, tieless but dressed in a pressed shirt and navy suit, was wearing a prototype of the Jobs for U.S.A. wristband that Starbucks would soon offer to customers for a $5 donation. While he was open to talking about his company's performance, what seemed more exciting to him was how the company had mobilized around an idea: to provide capital to small businesses that would, in turn, leverage the capital to create jobs. The effort was more complicated than the simple wristband would imply; it involved deep research on community lending, legal vetting, and complex marketing assessments and designs. It also involved locating a U.S. manufacturer of wristbands, not an easy feat when such trinkets are almost exclusively made overseas.
To a certain extent, Jobs for U.S.A. illustrates how projects get moving at Starbucks: Schultz—still the company's main instigator—has a kernel of an idea, in this case fueled by emails he received from customers despondent about the U.S. job market. He then activates a team, even inviting members over to his house for pizza, if that helps to create a stir of urgency. Ideas at Starbucks are supposed to undergo a rigorous review process and 6 to 12 months in the company pipeline. Sometimes, too—as was the case of Blonde (18 months in development) or Via instant (about 20 years)—it can take far longer. "But we did this in 30 days," Schultz says, pointing to the wristband. "I'm going to use this for years as a symbol and example to our people of what's possible."
A few months later, in Seattle, when I ask Schultz for a progress report, he tells me that the company has distributed 500,000 wristbands and dispersed about $2 million to more than a dozen organizations. To me, that made it only a modest success. On the contrary, Schultz says he's pleased. "I don't think I ever thought this would be the end of unemployment in America," he remarks. He points out that the initiative has already done quantifiable good. Schultz, who visits branches several times a week to chat with baristas, adds that his employees, young and frank and unafraid to vocalize a complaint, have told him they feel proud of the effort. This is not negligible. Starbucks considers a product's success not only in terms of consumer acceptance but also in terms of employee acceptance. The company's U.S. workers alone constitute a huge and influential social network.
Schultz tends to see his company's recent tribulations as a case study in what can happen to a business that uses growth as a strategy rather than a tactic. For the better part of 15 years, he explains, from 1992 through 2006, "practically everything the company did produced a level of success and adulation." Yet Starbucks's consistent successes distorted its managers' view of their own creativity. As he puts it: "If Frappuccino is a hot category and you introduce a new flavor, and it moves the needle a lot, the organization comes to believe, 'That was a great thing we did.' And it imprints a feeling of, 'That was innovation.' But that's not innovation. In fact, it's laziness." The line extension of a product, by Schultz's criteria, involves little in the way of risk taking or long-range vision. And that was the problem with the old Starbucks.
In trying to understand this company's response to its crisis—the low point, one executive told me, was at the start of the recession when a host of economic commentators concurred that Starbucks coffee was an ideal thing for consumers to cut back on—it's helpful to view the organization as having shifted from a methodical expansion of the brand to a methodical enhancement of the brand. Starbucks no longer seems to perceive its future as depending on an ability to clone its essential store concept ad infinitum. To be somewhat reductive: You can try to sell the same amount of stuff at more stores. Or you can try to sell more and more stuff at the same number of stores. These days, the overarching gestalt of the company—demonstrated by its plans for redesigned stores, investments in innovative coffee machines, an expansion of its digital networks and rewards programs—is striving for every branch to be both more versatile and more artisanal.
It is not simple, or philosophically consistent, to sell products that are commoditized and personalized at the same time. The same goes for trying to be global and local simultaneously. Starbucks employees actually have a rejoinder to this—they call it thinking "glacially." The something-for-everyone ethos of Blonde lighter roast, therefore, fits in with company coffees (rare Ethiopia Harrar, for instance) meant only for epicures. Standardized wall decor is complemented by the work of local artists. At Seattle HQ, these apparent paradoxes make perfect sense.
Roy Street Coffee & Tea is the last stop on my afternoon tour of Starbucks's Seattle stores. My guide is Arthur Rubinfeld, Starbucks's president of global development and the company's top design guru. Roy Street is a curious place. There's no Starbucks logo and no Starbucks cups; its only apparent tie with the mother ship is an inspired by Starbucks note stenciled on the front door. As such, the store could be seen as a stealth effort at "local-washing" and yet another example of Starbucks's attempts to expand at the cost of indigenous neighborhood coffeehouses.
Within Starbucks, at least, the store is viewed more benignly as a laboratory for high-end products. Thus, there are a number of Clover machines here, each costing upward of $10,000, which produce a single cup of high-quality coffee through a special French-press-like process. Starbucks bought the Clover company in 2008 and is now rolling out the machines around the world. Each machine is connected to the Internet and a central databank, managed by Starbucks, that instructs the machine on the optimal brew time of different blends. Even if you have the money, you can't buy one (though celebrities often call the company to try). Clover now exists for the enhancement of the brand and as a part of "the theater of experience," as Rubinfeld puts it, of its new or redesigned stores.
What's ultimately most intriguing about Roy Street is the feel of the place. It is chic and comfortable, like a boutique hotel lobby. And it is big, about 3,600 square feet, which has demonstrated to Starbucks executives that they can create exceedingly large spaces and manage them efficiently. Finally, it's versatile. Rooms can be partitioned off for independent-film screenings or concerts while a slightly futuristic Starbucks scene exists nearby. At Rubinfeld's suggestion, we pause to take a look around. A few students are doing homework; some businessmen are taking a meeting; a woman sips wine at the bar, while a man next to her pokes at a charcuterie plate of local, handmade cheese and salamis. The barista is fiddling with a new machine, a Clover for tea that can adjust its brew temperature for different leaf blends.
Roy Street is the most extreme example of the company's experimentation. It's also testing wine, beer, and premium-food offerings in five markets, as well as other subtle changes in decor or lighting, and how they might affect a branch's atmosphere and receipts. These are all efforts to realize a fundamental goal: to boost store business beyond the breakfast rush, which still constitutes the bulk of the company's revenue. And in Roy Street, in particular, Rubinfeld believes, Starbucks has the answer. As we observe the scene, he leans over and whispers, "You could be here from 6 a.m. to midnight."
As Starbucks was struggling to mount a turnaround between 2007 and 2010, there seemed a belief, at least on Wall Street, that the company's best days were behind it. Schultz was publicly advised that to save the company, Starbucks should lower prices and cut health benefits to employees. He did neither. While he did shutter branches and roil his management ranks, what seems most striking is that the company invested in new ideas rather than cut back.
The next great challenge, Schultz explains, involves the company's deepening involvement in health and wellness. "I think despite the growth and development and the size of the company," he tells me, "we're still in the early days of what Starbucks might become." Later this year or early next, Starbucks will integrate a new line of fruit and vegetable juices and new healthy foods into its stores. But even before then, Schultz will oversee a risky (and related) endeavor.
"We are opening a whole new retail store," Schultz says as he reclines on a large couch in his office. Behind him, a wall of windows frame the Seattle rail yards and, in the distance, Puget Sound. The test concept, he adds, is operating in a secret place in this very building.
"Could I see it?" I ask.
"No, you can't," he says, laughing. "But we're going to create a brand-new retail concept around health and wellness that's never been done before. Because we think we can create a national retail brand."
Schultz's appetite for risk is all too apparent here—and innovators often meet with failure. Several times during my visit to Seattle, I tasted some of the juices, currently sold under the Evolution name, that Starbucks is testing for launch. Some are conventional and appealing, tangy mixes of mango and orange; others come fresh out of the Starbucks R&D lab and taste, at least to my palate, like they come fresh out of the Starbucks R&D lab. For lunch, would you drink 12 ounces of neon-green liquid kale sweetened with apple juice or spiced with a ginger kick?
When I ask Schultz whether Starbucks might be straying too far from its core, he says, "Well, you have to ask: What is the core?" Starbucks is not a tech company, he points out, nor is it an apparel company. "We have 40-plus years of acquiring real estate and designing and operating stores all over the world. We understand how to elevate and romanticize an experience built around a beverage. And we think we can do that again on a platform of health and wellness, and elevate the nutritious value of what fresh fruit and vegetables can be in a world that is longing for educational tools to eat and live healthier." The company can, he vows, "bring that to life in a way that has not been done."
Schultz is a very good salesman. He gets you curious; he wants you to buy in. He assures me that the concepts for the two new health and wellness stores, which will debut this spring in Seattle, are "stunning."
Obviously, he sees a market. More to the point, he sees a mission. Schultz effectively contends the distinction is not relevant; Starbucks has enjoyed the biggest profits in its 43-year history by pursuing both. And he sees this as logical rather than paradoxical. "Profit as a singular goal is a fairly shallow aspiration, and it's not enduring," he says. "I've always said that you can't create long-term value for the shareholder unless you create long-term value for the employees and the communities you serve." In Schultz's view, companies with a social or environmental mission simply get rewarded. "And those companies that are unwilling to participate in improving and enhancing the communities they serve and the employees they employ," he adds, "will be in the penalty box. And they should be."
Still, embracing new and risky endeavors—or making a consistent effort to balance business with social involvement—is not the only explanation for why Starbucks has bounced back. You can get the feeling, talking to Schultz, that if you asked him to make you a macchiato, he could (and would) walk you over to the Starbucks store near his office, but that he'd also lecture you on why one espresso technique is superior to another and why the coffee machines at Starbucks are now built at a lower height, at his insistence, so the barista can chat and make eye contact.
To that end, innovation is pointless unless you sweat the details. When Schultz and I met in downtown Manhattan, we had spoken for about an hour before we shook hands and said goodbye. I walked toward the door, but before leaving I looked back. The Starbucks boss—now comfortably a billionaire—was wiping a spill from the table with a napkin. Then he stood up to bus his mug to the counter. On the way, though, he paused: He had noticed an empty coffee cup that someone else had left behind, and so he grabbed that, too.
Illustration by Mary Kate Mcdevitt
Photograph of Schultz by Melissa Golden
Photograph of Starbuck's team by Michael Clinard