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IntenselyFocused

Intensely Focused

I'm not obsessed, I'm just intensely focued.

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Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture - Taylor Clark This was a truly fascinating book and surprisingly funny, too. The first half of the book covers the history of coffee followed by the history of Starbucks. Clark has enough funny asides that it feels more like talking to a friend than it does reading a history book. It's pretty clear that he admires Howard Schultz, which is understandable, but he doesn't sound like a guy I'd want to work for. (He could give Al Gore a run for his money in terms of micromanaging).

The second half of the book focuses on widely held criticism of Starbucks. It turns out much of the critism is valid, but there are some interesting wrinkles. For example, it's clear that while Starbucks has every intention of driving Mom & Pop coffee stores out of business, it is also true that Mom & Pop stores are thriving and the ones that make decent coffee (most of them) actually benefit from having a Starbucks move in nearby. Their sales suffer for the first few months but they generally exceed their former sales after that. So blame Starbucks for its intentions if you want, clearly it does things like buying out leases to drive other stores out of business, but recognize that Starbucks is actually beneficial to those local, independent coffee stores. And while Starbucks is not single handedly responsible for bringing decent coffee back to America (and say what you will, charbucks or not, Starbucks is better than the 50% plus robusta crap that people were buying in cans before that) it's majorly responsible. Peet's obviously had a huge influence, but Peet's focus was on bringing beans home to brew, they didn't get into traditional latte sales until much later (after Starbucks).

It's also true that that their charity work is pretty wishy-washy and coffee farmers generally are getting royally screwed. There's also some unproven allegations that Starbucks' software that either helps or creates the scheduling magically keeps people from having enough hours to quality for part time and thus be eligible for health benefits. (Wal-Mart actually insures more of its workforce that Starbucks, though not much more). On the other hand, Starbucks has a policy of paying for the entire medical treatment of terminally ill employees and that's pretty generous.

There's also discussion of the fact that Starbucks has long strayed from its roots of trying to serve amazing coffee. The goal is no longer quality, it's efficiency and standardization. The espresso machines are pushbutton and baristas don't know nearly as much about coffee as they used to. It used to be a highly trained profession with as much art as science, now, not so much. (For the record, the former baristas that Clark talked to about this were frustrated by it. Current baristas are not allowed to talk to the press). People go to Starbucks now not because they ever expect (or receive) great coffee, but because they can usually count on decent coffee.

Starbucks transformation into the multibilion dollar machine it is today is fascinating and at times, a little silly. Starbucks apparently color coordinates its summer drinks to match the hot colors in fashion so that people can have a drink that matches their outfit.

In the end I'm left with the impression that much of Starbucks rhetoric is more than a little silly, some of the bad things that people say about them are true, some are untrue (though not necessarily because Starbucks wants them to be) and yes, it really is getting away from caring about serving really good coffee. But it's also highly responsible for getting people to care about getting good coffee in the first place.

I can't stress enough how interesting and funny this book is. If you have any interest in coffee, the coffee industry, or business, I highly recommend this book.