600 fewer places to get a venti triple skinny half-caf mocha

Starbucks announced that it’s closing 600 stores in the US.

It’s a drop in the bucket, but still it’s yet another sign that the state of the economy is dragging down even the seemingly untouchable corporations.

Unfortunately in the Houston area, Starbucks has a virtual monopoly on the coffee shop business. They dominate and there are only a small handful of smaller chains and independent shops in pockets around the city and suburbs. In our particular area in the southeast burbs, Starbucks is practically the only coffee shop around and the only semblance of competition comes from McDonalds, which makes a decent iced coffee.

I do like Starbucks coffee beans, but since I don’t like their commercial drip brewers and their process for making iced coffee, I don’t buy drinks at the stores very often. I used to love their espresso drinks until they went away from the old style manual espresso machines and brought in the automatic machines, but that was another rant.

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.

Kenya AA from H-E-B

lolasavannah.jpgAh, back to a coffee that I can rely on to taste good. Lola Savannah, I believe, is the coffee company that produces the Central Market coffees sold at Central Market and H-E-B. For grocery store coffee, CM’s coffee is some of the best around. I generally go for the blends and single origin coffees, but every once in a while I’ll get French vanilla or hazelnut. This last time was not one of those times.

Kenya AA is probably my favorite single origin coffee right now. It’s not ridiculously expensive, it’s not too bold in flavor so it’s good in the morning, and it has a crisp flavor that doesn’t require much cream or sugar. It’s also a good component in coffee blends, but I went Kenya AA straight up this time.