The cardboard boxes, tossed from behind the counter, hit the floor one at a time, each skidding to a heavy stop within a few feet of where I sat. My first instinct was to look for a manager, who would, I imagined, immediately recognize how disruptive this was to customers. But when a manager did appear, she sliced open the boxes and began tossing the bags inside to another worker, who dunked them noisily into a cabinet-inches from my table.
Were this a fast-food outlet or neighborhood diner, I might have been, at worst, mildly annoyed, my expectations being low to begin with. But this was a suburban Starbucks, which had just relieved me of $6.16 for a cup of coffee, a cinnamon scone and The New York Times. Every scrape of cardboard on the wood floor caused me to twitch in annoyance. When the counter worker appeared from the back with another hand truck stacked with boxes, I walked out.
The evidence is anecdotal, but for Starbucks the issue is far more crucial than whether a few workers in one store caused a distraction easily overlooked by all but the grumpiest of customers. The issue is whether one of the most successful companies in the world has lost sight of what its brand stands for, or whether, in its rapid, and rabid, expansion, the chain has lost the ability to maintain its standards. It's the same question every fast-growing company eventually faces: How big can you get and still be good? For Starbucks, billions of dollars ride on the answer.
Did I overreact that day to the routine tasks of low-wage workers? Perhaps. But, as a loyal customer, and admirer, of a company that for many others is an easy target of derision, I can say the experience unfortunately matched my recently revised expectations of Starbucks.
To appreciate what is at stake, understand the psychology behind the brand. Advertising did not create Starbucks' image. It was built on two things: the quality of its product-it really is a better cup of coffee-and the store experience. The latter is so sacred that, as The New York Times pointed out in an amusing story last year, the chain even banned smoking in its stores in Vienna, where cigarettes and coffee are inseparable, because it doesn't want anything to interfere with the seductive scent of fresh-brewed espresso. The retail experience also extends to sparkling service and an unspoken invitation to linger over a cup of coffee in the store.
The promise of the brand, that it will deliver a superior product in a superior setting, is the reason Starbucks gets away with charging four bucks for a cup of coffee. The price raises expectations, justifying customer frustration when Starbucks doesn't satisfy the cost-value equation. If I agree to your prices, you agree not to sling boxes at me while I'm reading the paper.
It does appear Starbucks is paying a price for its success. As Business Week noted in a September cover story, "Planet Starbucks," the chain grew from 17 coffee shops in Seattle to nearly 6,000 in 28 countries in 15 years, with sales, profits and the stock price soaring with the store count.
But, as Business Week also pointed out, as it opens store after store the chain is having difficulty hiring and training qualified workers. After pioneering stock options for part-timers (to give front-line employees a stake in its success), Starbucks is now regarded by its workers as "just another fast-food gig."
As Starbucks strives to deliver on the strong earnings growth it aggressively promises to Wall Street, that blurred distinction could, like carelessly tossed boxes, cause a lot of damage.