From visionary action to reactionary handling / Starbucks forced into its own third-wave

The success of Starbucks, with its founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker, prompted Howard Schultz to pay them a visit in 1981. He was curious as to why that company kept ordering an unusually high amount of plastic cone filters from his Swedish employer, Hammarplast. In 1982 he joined Starbucks as director of marketing.

On a buying trip to Italy in 1983, he was impressed by the country’s coffee culture. His wish to popularize the serving of espresso based drinks in centers for social gathering had begun. Schultz approached his employers with the idea of moving Starbucks in that direction. Up to this point, Starbuck was a successful supplier of specialty coffees to a growing number of coffee shops, and their founders showed no interest for Schultz’s idea. As a result, he chose to leave the company to build his own business based on the Italian model. Having found the necessary investors, in 1986 he founded Il Giornale and, before long, its success attracted the Starbucks founders. They sold him the Starbucks retail business in 1988 and acquired Peet’s Coffee and Tea, focusing on selling coffee specialty seeds. The Il Giornale business model was then named Starbucks and the expansion began.

While living in Boston, my interest for coffee was ignited after a couple of visits to a Mexican restaurant in Harvard Square. Although I was new to the taste, I felt the need for places in which to relax and socialize outside of a restaurant setting, but in New York and Boston, with the exception of a couple of book shops with coffee, the only alternative was a number of chains similar to Dunkin’ Donuts and Dinners. Thanks to the Mexican restaurant, I knew coffee could be much better. The emergence of Starbucks was a welcome treat, for they provided a different approach to coffee brewing and their lounge atmosphere provided the social frame I yearned for.

Through the success of the first four Starbucks localities, a nourishing bed for coffee culture had begun and Seattle was becoming a Mecca for specialty coffees and the coffee shops, known in the industry as the “third-wave”. Today, many of the third-wave coffee companies have their roots in Seattle and Portland and are the same companies that have forced Starbucks into what I see as their very own third-wave phase in 2015 – the Starbucks Reserve.

Starbucks Reserve stand / New York Coffee Festival, New York, NY / Leica D-Lux 4
Starbucks Reserve stand / New York Coffee Festival, New York, NY / Leica D-Lux 4

The world of coffee lovers owes Starbucks great gratitude for their revolutionary beginnings dating back to 1971. Like no other they motorized and energized the caffeine industry with specialty coffee and made us aware of the importance and joy in expecting more from a coffee drink than a mere cup of Joe for our morning dose of caffeine. But with their success grew their hunger for power and soon they began exercising their power on their competitors, causing anger and protests in the 90’s. Their love to detail became a love for profit.

Noticing in 2010 that in London their exceptional La Marzocco machines from Italy had been replaced by the Swiss-made Mastrena superautomated coffee machines, gave me sufficient signs as to the direction in which they seemed to be going: namely, away from the production of high-end coffee drinks made by well-trained baristi. They were shifting from their first-wave (making detail-oriented servings) into their second-wave (for the sake of mass and speedy production). With Mastrena machines having being installed in most of their shops since 2008, the barista became irrelevant. Their employee serving coffee does not need to understand a machine, nor the way coffee reacts to pressure, water and temperature. A barista just pressing buttons, stops being a barista. There is no tamping and no porta filter handling.

While globally we have witnessed the third-wave of coffee for the last 20 years, the Starbucks Reserve shows that the original company has just reached their internal third-wave. The brand new shops are being introduced with siphon machinery; small batches are being praised anew; cold-brewing has become the centre of their advertising and the new machines resemble much more the design of more classical espresso machines.

In the western civilization, the coffee culture is generally divided in three waves. The first could be seen as the coffee pots of the mid-twentieth-century found in Dinners, Dunkin’ Donuts, Chuck-full-o-nuts and the like, while the second refers to the changes that Starbucks brought about through specialty coffees in the 70’s, and in the 80’s with their lounge-like coffee shops. Through the work of various individuals that were not satisfied with the Starbucks understanding and vision of coffee, the third wave developed, spreading from Seattle and Portland into Brooklyn and the rest of the country. Simultaneously the third wave manifested itself in cities like London, Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, Copenhagen and many others, as well as in Australia and New Zealand (just to name a few). Around the world baristi (known as baristas in English) began working religiously to develop drinks, machines, brewing methods, coffee blends and also ideologies about the politics of and around coffee.

Just a few months ago I began seeing several signs pasted on Starbucks shops throughout New York, announcing “small batches”, “cold-brewing” and “single varietals”. Now I understand why. They have decided to catch up with the international third-wave movement and have seen that those companies respecting coffee are making money as well. At the New York Coffee Festival, last month, they presented a stand with siphons and small Vietnamese, Hawaiian and Ethiopian batches.

Starbucks Reserve stand / New York Coffee Festival, New York, NY / Leica D-Lux 4
Starbucks Reserve stand / New York Coffee Festival, New York, NY / Leica D-Lux 4

At Starbucks – second-wavers and best known coffee servers of the globe, at Dunkin’ Donuts – well-known US-American chains, and at Stumptown, Blue Bottle, La Colombe and hundreds more that form the third-wave: everywhere you will find thousands lining up for a cup of coffee every single day. It shows that our palate choice is truly a matter of taste. However, being more demanding on an individual level will very likely show us that we might have been naming our taste prematurely. Quality is not truly a matter of taste.

A Siphon station at the Starbucks Reserve stand / New York Coffee Festival, New York, NY / Leica D-Lux 4
A Siphon station at the Starbucks Reserve stand / New York Coffee Festival, New York, NY / Leica D-Lux 4