At each of the company’s Seattle hot spots -- the Starbucks Support Center world headquarters, the new flagship store, and the first-ever Starbucks location at Pike Place Market -- the tree-to-cup story has begun to rule all. The desire of the people behind the company’s desks, tasting tables, and counters is that the millions of customers be just as obsessed with flavor profiles, ethical farming, roasting philosophies, and single-origin batches as they are.
This may seem like an about-face from an empire of foamy lattes, cinnamon-spiced holiday fare, and coffee-tinged pastries, but that’s by design. The company that redefined America’s coffee industry is finally regrouping in the face of two backlashes: the return of the blue-collar cup of joe (most prominently from Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s) and a growing network of specialty “little guy” coffee sellers. Starbucks hasn’t laughed off the competition, as evidenced by its major downsizing, which was capped off by a 600-store closure that was announced in July 2008.
Howard Schultz, chief executive officer of Starbucks, claims that streak of closures and layoffs is the last for a long time, as the company has stabilized over the past year. But Starbucks has a peculiar business challenge: to appease lost customers, add new ones, and maintain a farmer-first philosophy that prohibits the easy route of slashing prices.
The answer? Time to turn up the volume on bean chat.
ANN-MARIE KURTZ, manager of Starbucks coffee engagement, presents a slideshow of her last vacation. At least, it looks like a vacation, as each photo is of Costa Rica’s tree-filled hillsides, smiling faces, and a lot of people dressed in shorts. As it turns out, Kurtz -- seen in the photos with flattened, white-blonde hair; round glasses; and a big, beaming smile -- was on official business to visit the many coffee-growing communities that supply Starbucks with its steady stream of beans.
Most people think of Starbucks as being located on every street corner, but through Kurtz’s photo tour, it’s clear that the biggest “franchises” -- the coffee farms -- are stationed in the high-elevation areas of Latin America, Arabia , Indonesia, and beyond. She tells stories of how the cherries -- deep red and sweet in their natural, ripe state -- are grown, picked, and processed to harvest their beans. But she’s even more interested in the farms’ financial ecosystems.