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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

That Starbucks barista is gonna love on you

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2008 at 8:50 PM

starbucks-logo.jpg

The baristas at the Ansley Starbucks were all, um, eagerly anticipating the much publicized closing of more than 7,000 stores for three hours at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The purpose was for all employees to undergo training ordered by Howard Schultz, the company's recently reappointed CEO, to recapture the "soul of the past," according to the New York Times.

Actually, Schultz wouldn't call it training. He told employees via a video message: “This is not about training. This is about the love and compassion and commitment that we all need to have for the customer.” Oh yeah! In a memo a year ago, he talked about losing “much of the romance and theater” at the shops that seem to dot the corner of every urban intersection.

Actually, the Times reports that sales have been slacking at Starbucks and the company is closing 100 shops, including one here on North Highland Avenue. It has also cut back expansion plans.

I asked the Starbucks baristas Tuesday what there was to learn about making espresso when the shop uses an automated machine. One explained that the barista can still control certain factors that affect the taste of the drink. One of those, certainly, is the steaming of milk. It's very true that some baristas seem more talented at that than others.

The truth, in my own experience, is that the automated espresso makers are, overall, advantageous. You could certainly tell who was well trained and who was not when the Ansley shop used a manual machine. While it's true that a good shot is not now as good as it was when made by a talented barista on the manual machine, an inferior automatic shot is nowhere near as bad as that of a poorly made manual shot.

If Starbucks really wants to improve things, it could start offering quality pastries and better sandwiches. It could also provide completely free wireless Internet service like most independent shops do. In the spring, the stores are switching from T-Mobile to AT&T WiFi, which will be free to AT&T subscribers, but the rest of us will have to pay or maintain Starbucks cards. This is a ridiculous hassle in a world of free WiFi. (And the Ansley Starbucks' T-Mobile WiFi is infamously undependable.)

I'm not among those who begrudges Starbucks its corporate ambiance. The Ansley store has an assortment of entertaining, personable baristas, and there's a virtual community of regulars there (although the failing wireless connection is driving away some). Also, my understanding is that employees receive benefits, like health insurance, superior to the average in the food industry. The espresso's decent. So it ain't all bad.

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