Claire Cain Miller’s long profile of Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz is business journalism at its very best: engaging and readable, telling a story, packed with snippets of intelligence I hadn’t known despite my having kept an eye on the Starbucks story.
(My favorite bit of color from Miller’s story: apparently all the CEOs in America are friends. Schultz is pals with Michael Dell, and it was on a long bike ride with him in Hawaii that Schultz began developing the rebound plan. The CEO of J. Crew emailed Schultz with a store complaint, and Schultz answered personally.)
For all the things I don’t much like about Starbucks, they’ve brought a level of consistency (in the best sense) to both their coffee and their atmosphere that is easy for urbanites to sniff at, but extremely valuable in places where there wasn’t an indigenous coffee-oriented “third place” culture before Starbucks arrived. And that describes much of America.
I’m happy to see Schultz taking the company’s problems seriously. Although I rarely visit Starbucks for the coffee or food, I do buy my daily newspaper in one down the block, so I have occasion to watch the company’s transformation. I generally like the company’s recent improvements and innovations, starting with the vast improvement in food offerings (including both snack and mealtime options) that has swept the chain in the past two years. Time was (and not long ago) that most baked goods at Starbucks were nearly inedible, and overpriced at that. But in the recent revamp, quality, price, variety, and freshness have all improved. A year ago, I would have said that British chains like Caffè Nero and Costa Coffee offered consistently better baked goods and snacky foods than Starbucks, but Starbucks is catching up.
I don’t much like the over-roasted coffee or the mainstream drinks (sugary and artificial, they are). But they’re paying attention to this, too, and in most stores there’s a bean blend in one of their brewed-coffee urns that I can tolerate — and it’s always, always hot and fresh, even in their licensed locations in airport terminals. Given the swill that is often called coffee in America, even here in New York, that’s not nothing.