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Solving Starbucks Problems – 2. Loss of Coffee Aroma


John Moore and I, two former Starbucks marketers, are offering recommendations to Starbucks in response to chairman Howard Schultz’s recent email.

We are examining the second challenge to the team: Loss of Coffee Aroma

“I believe we overlooked the cause and the affect of flavor lock in our stores. We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost? The loss of aroma — perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores; the loss of our people scooping fresh coffee from the bins and grinding it fresh in front of the customer, and once again stripping the store of tradition and our heritage?” – Howard Schultz email

John began this topic at Brand Autopsy. Below are my reactions to his thoughts, and my additional ideas…

I agree with John that the elimination of daily handling, scooping, grinding, and brewing of coffee – replaced by automatic machines and packaged pre-ground coffee is the key to Starbucks missing aroma problem. Starbucks has allowed efficiency measures to trump handcrafting. Handcrafting exposes us to the activities, sights and smells of the coffee making process – that is theatre (we discuss theatre here and here). Factory efficiency techniques thwart handcrafting.

The Dairy Air Stinks
The loss of coffee aroma is a double-whammy for Starbucks… With the warm, welcoming smell of fresh-ground coffee gone, the replacement is the smell of over-steamed, burnt milk. As a restaurateur, it’s disappointing to have a good smell disappear, but even worse to have an unappetizing smell replace it.

FlavorLock Not Exonerated
While I agree with John that FlavorLock packaging is not the single cause of the loss of in-store coffee aroma, I do think FlavorLock shares some blame.

Before FlavorLock, store partners used to open large bags of freshly roasted coffee… One pound at a time, they would measure and scoop into paper bags. This is how whole bean was sold for customer at-home brewing. All this bean handling, pouring, measuring and scooping introduced a lot of aroma to the store. Finally, any product that didn’t sell within seven days was ground up and donated. (Yet another chance for scent to waft through the store).

FlavorLock as replacement for hand scooping has reduced coffee aroma.

Whole bean coffee used to be treasured as an exotic agricultural product obtained from around the world. This coffee was special. It was custom-roasted by Starbucks and delivered to stores to be handled daily with care. Even before they were ground, the shiny beans released terrific aroma. Each day coffee was hand-scooped, and custom ground. With the introduction of FlavorLock packaging, handling with care became unnecessary. To partners whole bean coffee became a canned good – a commodity. Partners now simply lug a case of X from the storeroom and replace the three missing packages on the merchandise shelf.

Its no wonder baristas have lost passion for coffee. Who gets excited about a canned good?

Hold the Pastrami, Smell the Coffee
Howard has stated many times over the years, and VERY clearly in his 1997 book, “Pour Your Heart Into It” his philosophy on coffee aroma…

What’s the first thing you notice when you approach a Starbucks store? Almost always, it’s the aroma. Even non-coffee drinkers love the smell of brewing coffee. It’s heady, rich, full-bodied, dark, suggestive. Aroma triggers memories more strong than any of the other senses, and it obviously plays a major role in attracting people to our stores.

Keeping that coffee aroma pure is no easy task. Because coffee beans have a bad tendency to absorb odors, we banned smoking in our stores years before it became a national trend. We ask our partners to refrain from using perfume and cologne. We won’t sell chemically flavored coffee beans. We won’t sell soup, sliced pastrami, or cooked food. We want you to smell coffee only.

Well, never say never. To “drive incremental sales during the morning daypart,” Starbucks has been cooking food. In a limited number of test markets, Starbucks has been using small high-speed ovens to heat sandwiches and pastries. This is allowing Starbucks to capture additional sales from customers who have been buying their coffee at Starbucks, but breakfast somewhere else.

While I admit there is nothing tastier than the Starbucks molasses cookie heated and served warmed… The offending smells of cooked egg and burnt cheese overpower any chance of coffee aroma, just as Howard feared.

So, what solutions will bring back coffee aroma?

A seemingly simple answer…
Why doesn’t Starbucks just do what all of the other scent-filled, gourmet coffee places do? Merchandise coffee in barrels, with big scoops!? The place will fill with coffee smell.

Ironically, what we perceive as the fresh, gourmet, and authentic way to display coffee is the absolute worst thing you could do to coffee. Exposure to light and air causes coffee go stale and quickly destroys quality and flavor.

While the coffee displays at places like Zabars in NYC look like an old world market – scooping from an open-air barrel is actually the worst way to buy coffee.

Therefore, what ARE solutions?

  • Fresh Grind Thru the Day for In-Store Brewing – I can confirm first-hand that John’s suggestion of having stores re-instate the practice of fresh-grinding coffee for brewing will in itself return coffee aroma.

    While traveling to Vienna, Austria a few weeks ago, I stopped into Starbucks for my latte. There was something about the store visit that was different from the norm… yet familiar. Then I realized – I smell coffee! It was like the old days at Starbucks. Why do I smell coffee in European Starbucks, but not in the US? European Starbucks locations are NOT brewing coffee using the tear-open bags of factory packaged, pre-ground and, pre-measured coffee. They grind small, fresh batches – all through the day – filling the store with great coffee aroma.

  • Create and Strictly Follow an “Aroma First” Rule – Since coffee is Starbucks core, and scent is the strongest cue for our senses – make aroma the highest priority. (Yes, even more important than perceived increased sales). Maintain Howard’s original desire to preserve aroma and implement an “Aroma First” rule. It’s simple, for every decision; ask, “Is this going to negatively affect aroma in any way?” If the answer is “yes” do not do it…

    Let’s use the “Aroma First” rule to review previous decisions and some new ideas…

    Project Affect on Aroma Implement?
    Provide pre-ground coffee instead of in-store grinding. Negative. Eliminates chance for smell. No. Do not.
    Heat foods in-store. Negative. Introduces conflicting smells. No. Do not.
    Use FlavorLock pre-packaged beans. Negative. This eliminates hand scooping. Hand scooping adds coffee aroma to stores. No. Do not. Use these in the grocery channel and at airport locations where scent is not critical.
    Install mini coffee roasters in select stores. Positive. If roasted properly will increase the coffee aroma. Yes, explore this idea. If they can do it in-store at Whole Foods Market, Costco Warehouses, and the two-location Atomic Cafe, Starbucks could consider it.
    Use barrels of coffee to merchandise coffee. Positive. Will enhance aroma. Yes, explore this idea. But this coffee is for display (and aroma) only and cannot be brewed.

    The Aroma First tool provides a guide to fix old problems, and prevent new ones.

What practical ideas do you have? Add your reactions! Let us know your thoughts.


Our next topic, Solving Starbucks Problems: Loss of Store Soul, will address Howard’s concern that stores have become too chain store like. I will begin the conversation here at Idea Sandbox, and John will follow-up with his thoughts at Brand Autopsy.


Solving Starbucks Problems: One Post at a Time
Where we’ve been…

Where we’re going…

  • Issue 3: Loss of Store Soul
  • Issue 4: Lack of Merchandise Focus
  • Issue 5: Loss of Differentiation
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