The lost art of the latte

I just finished reading a book written by Howard Schultz, founder and recently reinstated CEO of Starbucks. He wrote about the importance of training the baristas (the folks who prepare the drinks for those of you not versed in their terms) in the proper technique for preparing their espresso based coffee drinks. His story is an interesting one and we’d all be better off if more CEOs like Schultz put their money where their mouth is and share the company’s success so directly with its employees. I’d like to see Volume 2 of his book as Starbucks has changed tremendously since the book was published in 1997 and now that he’s CEO again.

Since it’s become ubiquitous, I have occasionally reflected on my past experiences with Starbucks drinks. I didn’t drink coffee at all until ’95 and I remember what a treat it was to get a Starbucks latte between ’95 and ’98. There was a distinct richness to the coffee that translated directly into a rich espresso and when put together with steamed milk produced a very tasty beverage. There were other coffeehouses I spent more time in, but when talking just about the drinks, Starbucks was the hands-down winner in my book.

Over time, Starbucks stores started popping up all over the place like weeds and I found the drink quality getting increasingly inconsistent. My wife was a Starbucks partner (i.e. worked there) as the company rolled out the automatic, push button espresso maker machines (circa 2002). Those machines are the source of the problem, in my opinion. The focus became quantity of drinks produced rather than quality of drinks produced. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m willing to wait an extra minute or 2 for an excellent latte instead of getting a mediocre latte quickly. Either way, it still costs $3.50.

I’ve experienced servers at other coffeehouses who prepare lattes and cappuccinos artistically – layering the ingredients, marking a design on the foam with the espresso, foaming the milk to where a stirrer will stand straight up in it – very cool techniques and small touches that make the drinks unique rather than mass-produced. I know Starbucks has specific drink prep training regimens, but it seems they’d be the most capable of taking drink prep training to the next level.

I was fascinated when I read that Starbucks was closing virtually all their stores for 3 hours on Tuesday evening for employee training. I was doubly fascinated when I read that the training was going to focus on espresso preparation – pulling shots, as it’s called. Seems like someone was reading my mind.

Starbucks’ break brews frustration (chron.com)

Howard Schultz Transformation Agenda Communication #8 (starbucks.com)

Now, I haven’t been to Starbucks since this training, but I’ll update this entry when I do to see if it made a difference.

One thought on “The lost art of the latte

  1. I have had 2 lattes (one plain, the other a honey latte and from 2 different locations) since Starbucks training night and I’ve noticed an improvement – or rather, a return to what they used to always taste like. I hope they keep it up when the weather heats up and they’re having to whip up 34 Frappucinos to go ahead of my order.

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