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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Starbucks Experience

My first encounter with Starbucks.
There is a heritage building in downtown Vancouver that faces the city’s waterfront. For many years it was the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) passenger train station. It was built in 1914. By the 1970s long distance travel by train in Canada had lost a lot of its appeal and in 1979 the last scheduled passenger train left the CPR station. After that all passenger trains coming to Vancouver went to the CN station (Pacific Central Station) on Main Street.
In February of 1968 I took the train across Canada to Vancouver and I can still remember my first day in the city. I checked my trunk and walked out of the station. The first thing that caught my attention was a number of third rate hotels including The Ivanhoe on Main Street. Somehow I found my way to English Bay. It was raining lightly. I sat on a log on the beach with one hand holding an umbrella. I can still remember the seagulls screeching as they rode the winds.
In 1977 a floating pier was attached to the CPR train station and a ferry system connecting North Vancouver to Downtown Vancouver was implemented. The ferry system was named SeaBus.
In the early 1980s the interior of the CPR station was gutted and restored. In late 1985 the station also became part of Vancouver’s SkyTrain. The former CPR train station was renamed Waterfront Station. The original SkyTrain line carried passengers from Waterfront Station and the newly built Canada Place next door to the Expo 86 site in False Creek.
Waterfront Station
Waterfront Station
A number of shops opened up on the main floor of the old station building. It was a pretty impressive building to be in with its high ceilings and murals. For a period of time someone would come in and spend a few hours tickling the ivories on a large black grand piano. It seemed to be part of the “yuppification” of Vancouver.
For the first several years after the station had been restored, CPR had their offices on one of the two floors above the main floor along with some other businesses. CPR later moved their offices to Calgary. In 1986 I started my own business. A friend of mine was the head lawyer for Canadian Pacific, and as a favour and not ever having done an incorporation before and wanting to do one at least once in his career, he did all the paper work at cost.
I, of course, secured CPR as an account. (My business involved the sales of business equipment supplies and paper products.)  I also picked up a number of other accounts in the building. I was in and out of the building fairly frequently back then. It was a tricky place to find parking and I picked up a few tickets.
One day in 1987 I noticed a small coffee place that had just opened up at the station. It had a green sign with a mermaid on it. It was the first Starbucks in Canada. I forget what kind of coffee I ordered the first time but I liked the taste and added Starbucks to a list of places I would stop off at in my travels around Greater Vancouver.
Having grown up in Montreal I was partial to food that I had enjoyed in that city like smoked meat, bar-b-q chicken, and delicatessen offerings. If I was in Burnaby around lunchtime I would often eat at The Swiss Chalet. There were 2 places I could get Montreal style smoked meat, Kaplan’s on Oak Street in Vancouver and Phat Phil’s in Richmond, BC. Venice Bakery in North Vancouver was a good place to grab a quick sandwich. Lonsdale Quay and Granville Island offered a variety of fast food places that had an international flavour. My favourite place was in a food court in the basement of an office building in Vancouver that served Mediterranean food. They sold something called a Chicken Shawarma. The chicken was cooked on a slowly revolving spit and basted with a sauce. Slices of the chicken were taken from the spit and placed in a pita with some lettuce and tomatoes and a bit more sauce. I could go for one of those right now.
Starbucks beginning in Seattle.
Something was brewing or percolating so to speak in Seattle in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Several companies from Seattle opened up for businesses within a few years of one another and they would become major players in business in the years to come. The big 3 were Microsoft, Costco, and Starbucks. Before these companies came along a lot of Seattle’s economy had to do with the aircraft manufacturer Boeing and big forestry companies like Weyerhaeuser. They still make a lot of planes in Seattle but several years ago Boeing moved their head office to Chicago. Sadly there are today a number of abandoned sawmills and pulp mills throughout Washington State.
Just how did Seattle become the center of the universe when it comes to coffee? They don’t grow coffee beans in Washington State. When you think about it, a good part of today’s coffee culture has an Italian influence. An “expresso” machine is needed to brew the coffee. A lot of the coffee drinks have Italian names like a Macchiato, Expresso, Doppio, and Cappuccino. At Starbucks a “Venti” is a large cup of coffee. There are a lot more Italians in American cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia than there are in Seattle. Why isn’t one of these cities the center of the coffee universe?
Could it have something to do with all the rain that falls on Seattle which keeps a lot of people inside and having a cup of java is kind of a mellow way to pass the time until the sun comes out again which sometimes might feel like never? Does it have anything to do with Seattle being a seaport and importing things from around the world including large bags of coffee beans?

Seattle has been a progressive city for a number of decades. Because of its mild climate in relation to all the areas in the US that suffer through long winters, Seattle has been a draw for a lot of creative types of people. Over the years a lot of the older buildings have been restored and there is a kind of blend of the old and new. Pike Place Market is a good example of the old and new. As a city Seattle seems to welcome new concepts and diversity. There are a lot of people making a very good living in fields like technology but at the same time there is a kind of underground thing going on. Over the years Seattle has been at the forefront in music like grunge and alternative rock. The city has its own unique funkiness.
The original owners of Starbucks were 2 teachers named Jerry Baldwin and Zev Siegl and a writer named Gordon Bowker. They became friends while attending college in San Francisco. Baldwin was born in the UK. With a mutual interest in becoming entrepreneurs they decided to investigate coffee business. Their teacher was a man named Alfred Peet. Peet was in his fifties when the four first met. He was born in The Netherlands where his father ran a small coffee roastery. After the war Peet moved to London and apprenticed at a coffee and tea company. He later found himself in New Zealand and The Dutch East Indies working as a tea taster before immigrating to San Francisco.
Of the 3 original partners in Starbucks, Gordon Bowker is credited with coming up with the name “Starbucks”. He also chose the green colour for their logo. When the company started they bought their coffee beans from Peet. Their sole goal was to sell high quality coffee beans. They had zero interest in brewing coffee or opening up coffee shops. When they opened their first store in Seattle they allowed for some coffee taste samplings but didn’t sell coffee by the cup.
Howard Shultz was born in New York City and graduated with a degree in communications from Northern Michigan University in 1975. He started his business career as a salesman for Xerox. In 1979 he became the general manager of a Swedish drip coffee maker manufacturing company called Hammarplast. One of his clients was a small company in Seattle called Starbucks.
Shultz was impressed with the knowledge that the 3 Starbucks partners had about the coffee business and a year later in 1982 he joined Starbucks as their director of marketing. While on a buying trip to Italy Shultz noticed how many coffee places there were in that country. Drinking coffee was part of the Italian culture and at the time there were about 200,000 coffee bars in Italy. He started to look at the coffee business in a different way.
When Shultz got back to the US he managed to convince the Starbucks owners to try a pilot test of selling brewed coffee. It was a success but the owners didn’t want to get involved what they considered to be the restaurant business. Shultz decided to leave Starbucks in 1985. His wife was pregnant at the time and he didn’t have a lot of money. He needed about 400 thousand dollars to start his own business and open his first store. One of his backers was a Seattle doctor. Shultz’s first coffee place was called Il Giornale.
Meanwhile the Starbucks owners bought Peet’s Coffee and Tea from their mentor. In 1986 they sold their Starbucks retail unit to Shultz for 3.8 million dollars. Shultz immediately rebranded Il Giornale as a Starbucks location and began to expand rapidly. He did not believe in franchising and each new store was directly owned by Starbucks. The Starbucks empire grew and grew and Shultz needed more financing. In 1992 he decided to take the company public and shares were offered on the stock market.
Oldest Starbucks location in Seattle by Pike Place Market
Sometime around 1999 Shultz decided to step away from Starbucks. He was raking in about 9 million dollars a year in salary and stock options. For the next 8 years he spent some of his time writing books. He returned to Starbucks as CEO in 2008. In late 2013 he again stepped away from the company and the new CEO would be a former Goldman Sachs executive.
Today there are 20,891 Starbucks stores in 64 countries. Not every store opening has been a success. In Israel they decided to close all 6 of their stores because of strong competition and a difficult business environment. They would also close a number of locations in the US and Canada that were under performing.
Throughout the years Starbucks has been a leader in introducing new products related to their business including instant coffee in a tin foil pack. It has always been pretty obvious that paying over 4 bucks for a tall cup of coffee is pretty expensive when you can get a cup of coffee for half that price at 7-11. Right from the beginning Starbucks has tried to make a visit to one of their stores “an experience”, the fancy names for their coffee drinks, the comfy couches and chairs, the tidiness of their establishments, the piped in music that is at a low volume, the pastry selection and their healthy sandwiches.
Starbucks is somewhere you can hang out for hours with a book or a laptop and not be rousted. That 4 dollar coffee is like a small entrance fee to a club.
One of the smartest things Starbucks ever did was to introduce the Starbucks plastic credit card. It is kind of like the perfect low cost Christmas or birthday present. The card also brings new people into their store.
Becoming a regular Starbucks customer. 
It wasn’t long after I first discovered Starbucks at Waterfront Station in Vancouver that I started noticing new locations sprouting up all over the Greater Vancouver area. I got to know where most of them were. I was living in Richmond, BC at the time and I became an early morning regular at one of their locations a few blocks from my home. By this time I had a favourite Starbucks drink, something called a Mocha Valencia which was a mocha coffee with a bit of orange syrup. I was really pissed when they stopped selling that drink about 5 or 6 years ago.
For a period of close to 10 years (yes 10 years) I did a lot of internet dating (yes 10 years) and a Starbucks location was often the meeting place. It made a lot of sense. A cup of coffee was a cheap date and was in a public setting. If either party was disappointed one could easily escape. (I’ll have to write a story about those internet dating years sometime.) These days (I’ve been in a relationship for almost 8 years) while I’m waiting for my coffee at Starbucks I’ll often gaze around and see if I can spot a couple on an internet date. Come to think of it, Starbucks was where I first met my significant other, Linda. 

I think what mostly drew me to Starbucks was the slight bitterness to their coffee. It was kind of a compliment to my smoking habit. (Yes I still smoke.)  I never really hung out at a Starbucks. It was always a grab and dash. There were, however, a few things I noticed while waiting for my coffee order. One of those things that I still find amusing is how some people, mostly women it seems, place their order at the till and then go directly to the dispensing area expecting their order to be next and being totally oblivious to others who are waiting for their coffee. I may be wrong but I think sometimes this might be a bit of a statement by some women. It is like they think that they have a very busy life with a stressful job and kids and a lot of responsibility and that they have to stay focused on what they need to get through the day.
I remember walking into my local Starbucks one morning back in the fall of 2001. There was a lot of excitement in the place and I soon learned that the buzz was about the terrorist attack on the towers in New York City. I rushed home to watch what was happening in NYC on TV. At the time the second plane hadn’t yet crashed into the second tower. It was a morning I and many others will never forget.
About 10 years ago I left Vancouver and moved over to Vancouver Island and semi-retirement. I was living about a ½ hour’s drive from the closest city. It was the end of my daily Starbucks habit. A few years later I moved close to Nanaimo, BC and grabbing a coffee at Starbucks became a once or twice a month kind of thing. And then Starbucks kind of popped back into my life.
My short stint at Starbucks.
About 5 or 6 years ago Linda I made plans to visit France for about a month in the coming summer. The trip was going to cost us about 7 thousand dollars each. One day we noticed a sign on a new building in a nearby shopping mall that said a new Starbucks would be opening at that location and that they were hiring new employees. I have a small business that kind of runs itself to a degree and I thought that it might be fun to put in some time at Starbucks and pick up some extra cash for our trip which was still about 8 months away.
I filled out the Starbucks application and about a week later I was asked to come in for an interview which happened at one of the other Starbucks locations. The person who interviewed me was a heavyset gal, in her thirties I think, and she was going to be the manager of the new store. I was no spring chicken at the time. I was 62 years old. She must have liked something about me because I got a phone call about a week later saying that I was hired.
I was kind of excited. It seemed like a fun kind of job. I’m not sure how many people they hired but it was probably something like 30. Altogether I think the training period was about 10 days. It was quite awkward because they trained us in one of the smaller Starbucks locations and we had to sit in among the customers. It became pretty obvious that the manager of that store wasn’t that fussy about having all these extra employees around.
Some of the new employees had worked at Starbucks before including a guy around my age. Some of them were going to be shift leaders which meant they would get something like a $1.50 more per hour. One of the new shift leaders was a guy around 40 years of age who had injured his neck in a car accident. Sometimes he would go across the parking lot to a pizza place to get a padded thing that he wore around his neck heated up in their microwave oven. There were times during our training period that he laid his head down on the table in pain. I wondered if he was going to make it till opening day.
I knew I was going to be working with much younger people but didn’t give it a lot of thought. We learned what went into coffee drinks and how to make them. There were some coffee tastings and we were asked to describe the flavours. Did it have a woody taste? Did it have an earthy taste? It seemed kind of abstract to me. We learned where the supplies were kept, a variety of clean up chores, how to work the till, and a number of the other skills that were required of us.
It was now near mid-December and one day all the new employees were asked to go to the new store. It was one of those Starbucks with a drive through. In the room in the back where there was a little desk, a sink, a place to hang up our coats, and supplies that were stacked up to the ceiling in cardboard boxes. There was going to be a bit of a test run and then there would be a grand opening. So far so good it seemed.
The store manager was pretty gregarious but could be a bit unsettling when she laughed. It was kind of like a high pitched shriek. She was a taskmaster and wanted everything to be right on the opening day. She didn’t want to see anyone standing around and not busy. Leaning against a counter would not be tolerated.
Two gay guys were brought up from Victoria to help with the grand opening. Why I have no idea. One of them told me that he was going to make me dance which I thought was kind of inappropriate. I might have recognized that uncomfortableness as an omen of things to come.
I didn’t realize I would be working with what seemed like a number of Zombies. Things started to get awkward very quickly. It was like having some people spy on my every move. I think the first time I noticed the spying was when I realized the other old guy who was a shift leader was standing right behind me watching me give change to a customer. Then two other younger shift leaders gave me shit for not wiping off the expresso spout when I was the barista. I watched others miss wiping off the spout including the two gals that gave me shit and nobody jumped on them.
The store had two assistant managers, a couple of gals probably in their late twenties. They were easy to work with and I never had any problems with either of them. The same with some of the other shift leaders. There were about 3 shift leaders however that I didn’t enjoy working with. They seemed to enjoy being able to tell me what to do and critiquing my work habits.
One of those shift leaders gave me a small card once that said “Good Shift”. I think it also had a happy face on it. One day I had a little laugh with myself watching her trying to get a sandwich out of the oven and almost burning her hand. She hadn’t figured out the options of quickly sliding the metal spatula under the sandwich or pushing the sandwich to the back of the oven and forcing the spatula underneath it. I guess they don’t teach home economics in schools anymore?
I had trouble identifying with some of younger people who worked at that Starbucks. Some of them liked to gossip about stuff, talk about their boyfriends, or where they were going on Saturday night. We didn’t have much in common and I certainly am not the kindly old uncle type.
One thing that surprised me right away was that for a company that had so many rules, management didn’t seem to mind at all that some of the employees would spend their breaks or lunch periods lying stretched out on the couches that were meant for the customers. Sometimes they had headphones on and other times they lay there with their laptops. Sometimes they even took a nap.
One night a young guy came in with 3 friends and a pizza he had bought at a place across the parking lot. Neither he nor his friends bought a coffee or a drink so I asked them if they wanted to order something and they said no. I asked if would be OK if I asked these people to leave the store because they weren’t customers and was told no. After the pizza was eaten one of them took the pizza box over to the garbage container but found it wouldn’t fit through the hole. He got a bit frustrated and ended up stomping on the box until it fit through the hole. It was a class act.
The busiest time at a lot of Starbucks is around 9:30 in the morning. One day the manager gave me shit for not putting enough whip cream on a drink and the next thing I knew I was working mostly closing shifts. One night I was working with a young guy who I think was in the closet and he started talking about his family speaking in tongues at home. His chatter became even more bazaar and told him I thought he was nuts. The next day the manager told me that this guy had complained about my harassing him. What a little prick!
Everyone is expected to do the same chores at Starbucks but I learned that this wasn’t the case. The closing shift is supposed to remove the rubber mats from behind the counter and mop all of the floors. I can’t remember any girl at Starbucks ever mopping up. I seemed to always get stuck with that chore and taking out the garbage. Some of the girls were like little prima donnas.
On another night a regular came back to the store after taking out two coffees. Both of the coffees were badly made according to him. I hadn’t made the coffees but I tried to humour him a bit and make him relax. It seemed to work. The next day our manager told me that one of the employees had told her that I had laughed at the customer when he complained.
It was becoming more and more uncomfortable to go to work and fortunately I didn’t desperately need the money. I could quit anytime if I wanted to. I started to avoid the people I didn’t like and just go about my job. One day the manager asked me why I looked so serious a lot of the time.  What I was trying to do was not get involved in the petty stuff.
Starbucks draws people from different walks of life as long as they are willing to pop 4 bucks for a coffee and $2.50 for some kind of pastry. Most of the customers are decent sorts but there are also a number who are really a pain in the ass.
 Here’s a list of some of those pain in the asses.

#1 People who lean on the coffee dispensing counter oblivious to others ahead of them waiting for their coffee. Sometimes they grab other people’s coffee. Get a freaking Life! It isn’t just your world!

#2 People who are on their cell phones when they get to the till and expect you to wait until they have completed their phone conversation.
#3 Old ladies that order a pot of hot water to use with the tea bag they brought with them to the store. Actually this is more weird than being a pain in the ass.
#4 People who let their kids run around the store like everyone else must think their kids are cute.
#5 The mother/teenaged daughter combo who think they are really cool. Starbucks isn’t a private club and it’s only coffee. And no we don’t think you look like sisters.
#6 People who want to know the exact ingredients in a cookie or a pastry. If you have food allergies maybe a coffee shop isn’t the right place for you.
#7 Women who don’t know where their money is when it is time to pay and spend 5 minutes picking nickels and pennies out their purses when there are 15 people behind them in line.
#8 People who don’t flush the toilet after using it. Yuck!
#9 People who use the drive through garbage can to get rid of anything they don’t want in their car including used diapers.
#10 People who want to tell you their life story while 15 others are standing in line behind them.
#11 People who want to have a chat with the barista when there is a line up out the door. It’s hard to concentrate when you have 15 drinks to make.
#12 Adding an extra chair to a table is OK. Rearranging the furniture isn’t. Starbucks isn’t a good place to meet 30 people. Rent a room somewhere.
#13 Keep your feet on the ground. Starbucks isn’t a hostel or a Motel 6 or a park bench.
#14 Just say “extra hot” if that’s how you want your coffee. You are expecting an awful lot if you want an exact temperature.
#15 If you are in a desperate hurry and there are 15 people in line ahead of you go somewhere else or just skip having a coffee altogether. You are just exacerbating a situation.
Here are some of my own opinions and observations about Starbucks.
#1 Don’t tip and don’t clean up your table after you use it. You are paying over 4 bucks for a cup of coffee that costs about 75 cents to make. You don’t tip a cashier in a grocery store or a counter person at MacDonald’s do you? If Starbucks pays its employees crappy wages why is that your problem?
#2 Starbucks really isn’t that fancy a place. Do they serve you your coffee with that leaf design kind of thing on top of it? All baristas aren’t skilled. Your chances of getting a crappy coffee or not a coffee the way you like it are probably around 30-40%. Lots of coffees have to be remade.
#3 If you get a crappy cup of coffee when going through drive-thru you won’t probably know until you are a block away and at that point you are probably not going to bring it back. Its just too much of a hassle.
#4 If Starbucks is such a great place to work why is it that the staff keeps changing?
#5 Some baristas use the same rag to clean up messes that they clean the coffee nozzle with.
Some perks about working at Starbucks.
#1 You get a free pound of coffee every week.

#2 You get one free coffee drink of your choice per day when you work a shift.
#3 All the food products are dated. It is very common for workers to go home with bags of pastries and sandwiches which have reached their past due date.
#4 They have a pretty decent healthcare plan if you need to use it. It can be a bit redundant in Canada because we have universal healthcare.
The night I quit working at Starbucks.
It was a pretty quiet night when a couple of Asian people came in and ordered some steeped tea. We sold 3 types of steeped tea but it was now about 10 p.m. and the steeped tea had been thrown out. A young gal was serving the Asian couple and made an attempt to make them a new batch of brewed tea. The couple left the store and returned to complain about the quality of their drinks. They were now talking to me. The young gal who had made the tea stepped in and told the couple she would give them a rain check. I took the young gal aside and suggested that she not only give the couple a rain check but also give them their money back as they hadn’t received anything for their money. The young gal took a fit. She didn’t want to be bothered with doing a debit on the till. I walked into the back room, took off my apron, and left the store. I thought life was too short to be involved in this kind of shit. How I lasted for 3 months is beyond me.
We took our trip to France. I was kind of surprised to find a Starbucks right next to The Louvre.

I still go into the Starbucks I worked at once in a while. All the people I worked with are long gone including the manager.
A family affair.
Both of my kids have put in time working at Starbucks. We all agree that there a number of snotty people who visit Starbucks but also a number of nice people too. We also agree that there is a lot of pretentiousness about the business on both sides of the counter. 9 bucks an hour shouldn’t include having to put up with very rude people. Getting up at 5 in the morning to work a 4 hour shift is simply insane.
What I think about coffee in general.
A number of years ago we bought an expresso machine for home. No matter what coffee brand of beans I used I could never get the taste that I wanted. I didn’t see any difference between Tim Horton’s ground coffee at 7 bucks a bag or Kicking Horse ground coffee at 16 bucks a bag.
I still haven’t figured out how expensive restaurants often manage to serve up the perfect cup of coffee. A touch salty with just the right flavor.
I’ve always been a coffee sipper. I don’t really understand how people can chug a huge cup of java.
We did figure out a few years ago that we would be far better off if we drank decaf coffee especially in the evening.
My last coffee story.
Many years ago I had a supplier who got into financial difficulty and went bankrupt. Things were so bad at one point that they used to fill the water cooler with tap water. The owner of the business was a a gung ho guy named Todd. He had gone to college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
After his business failed Todd opened up a coffee place on West Broadway in Vancouver. Behind the counter and on the wall was a huge head of an elephant. The place was called Tony’s and it is still in business today. I thought Todd was pretty creative with that giant elephant head.
The last time I saw Todd he was planning on moving to Sacramento, California to get into the coffee franchise business. My guess is that the probably succeeded because he was a pretty positive guy.
Last spring Linda and I spent a weekend in the Bellingham area doing some sightseeing and shopping. There is a trendy kind of area in the southern part of Bellingham where there are a number of old brick buildings. We had a really nice dinner in one of the restaurants but were a little put off by our  waiter who seemed to think he was some kind of rock star. “You are just bringing dishes to our table and that just isn’t that amazing” I felt like saying but didn’t.
After dinner we went for a little walk. I noticed a sign at the front of a coffee shop. It said Tony’s Coffee. We walked inside and there it was on the wall behind the counter. A giant elephant head. My old friend Todd wasn’t as creative as I thought it seems.

Tony's Coffee, Bellingham, Washington










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