The Siren searches for a new song to sing. Something with soul.

So the leaked Valentine’s Day memo from Starbucks’ chair, Howard Schultz, has been authenticated. The memo reads as a frank and candid assessment of the coffee behemoth… and offers a few surprises along the way.

Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.

Well, duh. (Oh, and Uncle Howie: learn to use spell check!)

When we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca [sic] machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.

True. And to be frank, I’m gratified — and a little relieved — that Howard gets this. There’s all too many independent espresso bars and retailers who don’t. Howard goes on to address the loss of other important coffee-shop cues: coffee aromas, scooping and grinding beans, and — this is a biggie– the effect of their streamlined store design:

One of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store. Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee. In fact, I am not sure people today even know we are roasting coffee. You certainly can’t get the message from being in our stores.

This isn’t news to indies. Fact is, it’s one of the singular points of differentiation for Mom & Pop coffee shops the world over. Which hasn’t gone unnoticed:

While the current state of affairs for the most part is self induced, that has lead to competitors of all kinds, small and large coffee companies, fast food operators, and mom and pops, to position themselves in a way that creates awareness, trial and loyalty of people who previously have been Starbucks customers. This must be eradicated.

And there it is… the shot across the bow that’s likely got the attention of indies everywhere. “This must be eradicated.”

‘Course, the question remains as to whether this clarion call will lead to a real and meaningful change of course for the Starship Starbucks. If the net outcome is a rapid rollout of Bohemian couches and edgy art on the walls, it’s no big deal. And there’s probably more than a few boutique espressoriums who are taking heart in what Schultz’ memo overlooks altogether… the coffee. There’s no mention that independent shops are daily pushing the envelope, kickin’ ass and taking names where it counts — in the cup — with increasingly exacting technique at the roaster and the bar, coffee sourcing that focuses on sustainable relationship, and overall coffee quality.

I’m no Starbucks hater. I’ve written here and elsewhere that I’m genuinely appreciative of what Starbucks has done to raise consumer awareness about coffee these past many years. And I’m mindful that this is just one leaked memo, and not exactly a real window on the Siren’s soul. But I can’t help but feel that if Starbucks is really soul-searching, they’d do well to look far beyond their storefront experience. In fact, I’d suggest starting at the other end of the value chain.

Maybe Starbucks should consider more transparency in their relationships with coffee farmers. Maybe they should commit to buying a minimum of 5% Fair Trade Certified® Coffee. Maybe they should uniformly honor their existing commitment to serve Fair Trade Certified® coffee on request. And maybe they shouldn’t stand in the way of origin countries that seek to protect and add value to their product through trade name agreements.

Wanna find your soul, Starbucks? Easy! First, locate your heart…

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