Starbucks is going for quality: Baristas Told No More Than Two Drinks

Starbucks Corp. is telling its harried baristas to slow down—which may result in longer lines.

Amid customer complaints that the Seattle-based coffee chain has reduced the fine art of coffee making to a mechanized process with all the romance of an assembly line, Starbucks baristas are being told to stop making multiple drinks at the same time and focus instead on no more than two drinks at a time—starting a second one while finishing the first, according to company documents reviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal.

Baristas are also supposed to steam milk for each drink rather than steaming an entire pitcher to be used for several beverages. Other instructions include rinsing pitchers after each use; staying at the espresso bar instead of moving around; and using only one espresso machine instead of two, according to the documents.

Starbucks says the changes—which it expects to roll out nationwide and across Canada by next month—are part of its ongoing effort to make stores operate more efficiently. But some baristas worry it will create longer lines.

The new methods have “doubled the amount of time it takes to make drinks in some cases,” according to Erik Forman, a Starbucks barista in Bloomington, Minn., who says his store began making drinks under the new guidelines last week. Longer lines have resulted, says Mr. Forman, who is a member of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union.

Tyler Swain, a barista in Omaha, Neb., who is also a member of the union, worries how he will keep up with volume if he can only complete one drink at a time. “While I’m blending a frappuccino, it doesn’t make sense to stand there and wait for the blender to finish running, because I could be making an iced tea at the same time,” he says. His store has yet to adopt the changes.

“As with any new behavior, it will take time for baristas to become comfortable with the new method,” said Starbucks spokeswoman Trina Smith.

Starbucks insists the new procedures will eventually hasten the way drinks are made and lead to fresher, hotter drinks. Steaming milk for individual drinks, for example, “ensures the quality of the beverage in taste, temperature and appearance,” the company documents state, while focusing on just two drinks at a time “reduces possibility for errors.”

When asked whether changes have created longer lines in the test markets, Starbucks spokeswoman Ms. Smith said she didn’t have “that level of detail.”

The documents acknowledge that customers ordering no-foam lattes may have to wait longer for their drinks, and instructs employees to “let the customer know their beverage will take a little longer and may be out of order due to the time it takes the milk to settle and the foam to rise to the top (approximately 60 seconds).”

Customers have indicated that the quality of espresso drinks at Starbucks is “average” and that the beverages are inconsistently prepared from barista to barista and from store to store, the documents say.

Over the last few years, Starbucks has been applying to the coffee counter the kind of “lean” manufacturing techniques car makers have long used as a way to streamline production, eliminate wasteful activity and speed up service. The company has deployed a “lean team” to study every move its baristas make in order to shave seconds off each order.

That team discovered that many stores kept beans below the counter, leading baristas to waste time bending over to scoop beans, so those stores ended up storing the beans in bins on the top of the counter. To boost the freshness of the coffee and to bring back some of the “theater” that had been lost, the baristas also started grinding beans for each batch of coffee, instead of grinding the day’s beans in the morning.

Baristas say it can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute to make an espresso-based drink, depending on the complexity of the drink and the barista’s skill. In the documents, Starbucks says one of the goals of the new drink-making method is to produce beverages “at a more consistent pace.”

The company has made numerous changes to its business amid the economic downturn, including closing underperforming stores, trimming its number of bakery suppliers, boosting the perks of its loyalty-card program and introducing new varieties of its Via instant coffee. The cost-cutting and customer-improvement paid off in the company’s last quarter.

Earnings at Starbucks rose 37% while revenue for the quarter ended June 27 increased to $2.61 billion from $2.4 billion in the year-earlier period. Sales at U.S. stores open at least a year rose 9% in the quarter thanks to more customer visits and higher average spending.

At the same time that Starbucks has been on the upswing, it has been grappling with rising costs for raw coffee beans. The company recently said it would raise prices on more complex drinks in response.





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