Recently, Starbucks CEO Howard Schwartz wrote an internal memo that expressed regret that Starbucks had gotten so big. He wrote that the stores had lost some of their charm, in part because they don't smell like coffee any more now that the beans come in sealed packages. But Schultz also regretted switching to automated espresso machines a few years ago.
The sophisticated new machines brew excellent espresso at the push of a button. Sure, a great barista can do better, but I'll bet the machine makes better cappuccino than 95 percent of human baristas do. And yet, as the machines made Starbucks' coffee more consistent and customers less likely to get a sub-par latte, Schultz wrote that they "remove(d) much of the romance and theatre that was in play" with the old machines, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.
Sound familiar? I couldn't help thinking about how this parallels the contretemps currently swirling in the wine world about screw caps. Like the new espresso machines, screw caps do a better job than 95 percent of what they replace. But they lack the whiff of tradition and theatricality of popping a cork. And that is exactly why most upscale vintners resist the idea.
I love the charm of independent coffee houses as much as anyone, but get away from big cities and you take your chances. Yes, I have found excellent espresso in Winnemucca, Nevada, and Honokawai, Maui, but I can recall countless disappointments elsewhere. Small independent cafés earn their reputations with repeat local customers. I have three in my San Francisco neighborhood that I frequent. But when I am traveling, to see that familiar green Starbucks sign (or that of one of its worthy competitors) is to breathe a sigh of relief. I know they will make a grande skim latte (my morning drink of choice) or doppio macchiato (my usual afternoon option) that I can rely upon.
Let's set aside for a moment just how charming and quaint a Starbucks store can be. In the end, it is a chain, and a darned good one. Consistency is its virtue. It seems to be doing great business. I know this because I usually have to queue up to get my drink at one. Most people are toting away cardboard cups, not settling into one of the comfy armchairs (which are usually occupied by people who have been online on their laptops for several hours, anyway).
But I wonder, are the luddites who resist screw caps right to keep using corks in their expensive wines? Would losing the romance of extracting the cork make their product less desirable?
The analogy is tempting, but here is where it breaks down. If a human barrista makes you a lousy cup of coffee, you can bring it back and have her do it again. If a cork ruins the wine in its bottle, you better hope there's a backup handy. And that it's not affected by its cork, either. With wine, the stakes are higher than they are with coffee. You still get change from a $5 bill when you buy a cup of coffee. You could have spent hundreds of dollars on that wine, and it may have been resting in your cellar for years, rotting away under its bark-stopped neck.
How much is "romance and theatre" worth then?
Chad Beck — Edmonton — March 8, 2007 11:42pm ET
Glenn S Lucash — March 9, 2007 10:45am ET
David Lobe — Toronto, — March 9, 2007 1:55pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — March 9, 2007 7:33pm ET
Jonathan Lawrence — March 10, 2007 7:38am ET
C J Milne — Switzerland — March 10, 2007 10:50am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 10, 2007 12:31pm ET
Dave Joyce — Winston-Salem, NC — March 10, 2007 3:04pm ET
Anthony Roumph — San Francisco — March 11, 2007 10:45pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 11, 2007 11:35pm ET
Trevor Witt — Waterloo, Ontario, Canada — March 12, 2007 10:02pm ET
Rick Kirgan — Mexico — March 15, 2007 3:17am ET
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