Commentary: Starbucks Brew On Demand - The experience in the stores.

The difference between a request and a demand is the ability to hear 'no' for an answer. This blog entry is my commentary about the experience created by Starbucks' "brew on demand" policy.  This blog entry mostly focuses on the experience at the register - the few short minutes between customer and barista while standing at the register.  It is not really a discussion of the underlying merits of "brew on demand", but rather I truly want to focus on the customer's experience of it.  Unfortunately, mostly this will be a critical discussion of "brew on demand".  For a background story to "Brew on Demand" take a look at a previous blog entry here:

First, some background on what "Brew on Demand" is, for those who do not know.  On April 8, 2008, Starbucks launched a new coffee blend, an everyday coffee brew, called "Pike Place Roast" replacing the decades long tradition of offering a variety of coffees to showcase their whole bean offerings.  This means that rather being able to have a variety of coffee offerings,  after April 8th would always be guaranteed only one coffee would on the brew and ready to go: Pike Place Roast.

There are numerous sort of obvious problems or challenges with a premier coffeehouse, specializing in a variety of beans, offering  just one coffee bean selection for in-store consumption.  Just to name a few obvious problems:  If the customer doesn't like Pike Place Roast, he or she suddenly can't get a cup of coffee.  Another problem is that even customers who genuinely like Pike Place Roast may get tired of drinking only one coffee variety. And yet another problem is that it suddenly becomes much more difficult to get customers enthusiastic about premier whole bean coffee if there is no opportunity to try other coffee offerings. And the customer who knows and understands that there are many different brew methods for coffee, will very well be unhappy to have to accept an alternate brew-method for his or her cup of coffee.  Lastly, generally speaking, many customers will be unhappy at the idea that they've arrived a specialty coffeehouse only to be told to accept a substitution (have an Americano instead). Many customers do not want to drink watered down espresso, but rather want to enjoy a cup of Sumatra, or Kenya, or the blends that made Starbucks famous throughout the long history of 1971 through 2008.

In response to the challenges associated with only offering one single coffee offering, Starbucks announced a policy of "brew on demand". In June 2008, Starbucks officially announced that baristas will "Brew on Demand".  By March of 2009, there were still complaints that Brew on Demand wasn't effective, and Starbucks reiterated the same "Brew on Demand" policy again in their blogs, this time with even stronger wording:

• Decaf Pike Place Roast™ and Today’s Morning Pick should be continually brewed until 12 p.m. in all stores. (from 5 a.m. until 12 p.m. in 24-hour stores) • After 12 p.m., stores should consider their customers’ preferences to judge whether they continue to brew batches of these coffees or brew when ordered. • When a customer requests Decaf or Today’s Morning Pick and the store does not have it brewed, your barista should offer to brew a fresh batch while acknowledging the wait time.

Several obvious key points in the above language: Brew on Demand should work the same whether the customer wants the Bold Pick coffee or whether the customer wants a Decaf brew.  The analysis is the same for both coffee varieties.  Also, the intimation is that the experience should be easy at the register...the barista should "offer" to brew coffee.

What does brew on demand translate into at the store level?

So what happens at the register when a customer tries to order another coffee other than Pike Place Roast, which is not already on the brew? Fundamentally, a Starbucks customer is met with incredible inconsistency in the experience.  There is no assurances of any one particular result, and unlike the latte drinker who can demand a drink be remade if it is not  "perfect" the coffee drinker cannot demand anything.  There are a limited number of scenarios. Basically, the customer will experience one of the following, depending on the barista's good nature or animosity towards brew on demand:

  1. The barista immediately says, "Sure! I can brew you our bold pick! It'll be about four to five minutes wait"
  2. The baristas says, "No.  After noon our store only offers Pike Place Roast for drip brewed coffee."
  3. The barista says "No" and the  customer spends four to five minutes with customer trying to persuade the barista that he or she genuinely wants drip-brewed coffee and not an Americano or other substitution.
  4. The barista passes the buck and asks for a manager to come speak with the customer because the barista feels that he or she does not have permission to brew bold coffee. After four to five minutes, the customer may or may not actually get any bold brewed coffee.
  5. The barista says "yes" but tells a completely different story with body language that this is something that he or she does not want to do. The barista rolls their eyes, and sends the message that the customer is just a hassle.
  6. The barista refuses to drip brew bold coffee but offers to do a French press, unaware that many customers really do want brewed coffee and not a press.
  7. The barista says, "we have that ready - How does Gold Coast sound to you?"

The bottom line is that "Brew on Demand" creates incredible inconsistency in the experience. There is no way that a customer can demand coffee. The customer is placed in this horribly awkward position of trying to come up with the right words to persuade the barista to brew coffee. It feels like begging for coffee and most often a power game. It's an awful experience.  I have tried every possible way to get coffee. I have experimented with this and intentionally done everything from being extremely sweet to down right demanding, and I can assure you dear readers, nothing works. Either the barista will brew you coffee or not, and the customer has no control over what happens. All the customer can do is order coffee and say, "Hi! I'd like a tall bold pick of the week coffee" and then hold on tight and hope for the best, not knowing which of the above outcomes will happen. This incredibly uncertainty in the experience cannot be good for the brand.  I have experienced everyone of the above listed possible results.

Some readers may ask, "Melody, why are you still a Starbucks customer despite that only Pike Place Roast is available after noon in the stores?"

Pike Place Roast was launched April 8, 2008, and the worst of the brew on demand experiences, for me, were 2008, and into very early 2009. For me, the experience began to slowly change in August 2008. In August 2008, Starbucks completed the first wave of Clover expansion, and suddenly I found my work location perfectly and evenly distanced from two Clover brewers.  By late 2008, at least Monday through Friday during normal business hours, I didn't really worry about brew on demand. I simply did not make an afternoon visit Starbucks unless I was going to a store with a Clover brewer.

In honesty, it took a long time for me to figure out which Starbucks (outside of downtown Seattle) will brew on demand, and which will refuse. After a while, I slowly created a very tiny mental list of only three Starbucks north of the ship canal that consistently brew on demand.  Still to this day, I rarely go in a Starbucks in the weekends any more that isn't one of these three locations. In July 2009, Starbucks opened up 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, which uses both the 'pour over' and Clover brew methods for coffee, and basically I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I have to thank @Brendan206 who tipped me off at the one location in Seattle (north of the ship canal) that always brews bold, open to close. It's wonderful. I go out of my way to go to this store on weekends.  To all of you readers, this may seem ridiculous but finding one Starbucks brewing bold in Seattle is like looking for a needle in a haystack given the huge number of Starbucks this city has.  Now, between 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, and one particular Starbucks that always brews bold, I always have a weekend coffeehouse for bold Starbucks coffee.  And truthfully, if the weather is nice and warm, I'll often get a cold drink anyway.

My problem is simply that if I leave this Seattle-bubble, I'm pretty lost and basically now expect that I will hear "no" for answer, or that a barista will spend longer trying to persuade me that an Americano and/or a French Press is the same thing as filter-brewed coffee than it would take to actually brew it. The result: I don't go to a normal Starbucks in the afternoon.

Even today, on MyStarbucksIdea, there are still people who come on to the site complaining that their local stores told them that 'they're not allowed to brew bold in the afternoon'.  That's not a true statement per the Starbucks policy clearly announced by Starbucks to customers but it still is happening.

At this point, I question whether anything *can* ever change. Twenty months of being a specialty coffeehouse featuring just one single coffee has certainly caused some shifting and transition in the customer base. No doubt, there is a self-selection of customers happening, where bold brew customers simply don't return, to be replaced by customers who like something else.

Where is all this going?

It's not going anywhere.  There is not enough coffee education in the stores these days for most baristas to get excited by Italian Roast or explain why it has sweet notes to it, or to explain why Sidamo pairs well with a lemon loaf.  Many modern baristas believe, "have an Americano, it's the same thing."  The brew method IS important. Drip-brewed Espresso Roast is not the same thing as a shot of espresso. And frankly, I would be happy if a barista said to me, "if you've got five minutes to wait, I can brew a quarter-batch of Espresso Roast."  It makes a fine drip coffee.

However, as I've said before, I don't think anything will change now because the status quo has gone on so long.  I will say my favorite store manager has told me many times, "Melody, Starbucks should rename it 'Brew by Request' because even the harsh tone of the policy sets the customer-barista off on the wrong foot. Request is a much nice word than 'demand'". I agree.

I try very hard to keep this blog positive. I don't just repeat the latest lawsuit/scandal story in the news about Starbucks and report here. Rather I create my own content, through the Starbucks lens as I see it, as very imperfect as that might be.  It would be really disingenuous of me if I never admitted that Starbucks had a few policies that get underneath my skin. I have to be honest.  This is one of them here.  But we will return to your happier Starbucks content soon!

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