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Starbucks

Too Big? Too Fat? Too Sweet? Too Distracted?

By Ronald Holden

Howard Schultz would not appreciate being compared with Donald Trump; he's not racist or bigoted or homophobic, but he does seem to bestride the planet with the self-confidence of a biblical prophet who believes he has found the true vision for humanity. Perhaps he has, but so great are the flaws in Schultz's self-invented narrative that one is forced to point at his feet of clay. Let's just take one example, the now-famous, oft-repeated story of Howard-in-Italy.

As Schultz tells the tale in his autobiography, "Pour Your Heart Into It," he travels to Milan in the early 1980s and sees first-hand, for the first time, that many Italians duck into caffès on their way to work for a quick espresso in the coffee shops and bars that line the streets of the city center. This experience convinces him that Italy has a "coffee culture," that Starbucks (that is, the early, six-store version of Starbucks he was then working for) "had missed the point," that Starbucks needed to "unlock the romance and mystery of coffee" that he had witnessed firsthand in Italy's coffee bars.

"It seemed so obvious," Schultz wrote in "Pour Your Heart Into It." But Starbucks had not missed the point; Schultz's version of events was a fabrication.

In fact, the story of Italy's romance with espresso was quite familiar by that time. I had first heard it from Gordon Bowker-the real founder of Starbucks-almost a decade earlier, in the 1970s. It was part of Bowker's basic elevator pitch for his fledgling company, a 20-second vignette to illustrate his conviction that the Italians were onto something with their coffee culture. Schultz had clearly heard it before. From Bowker. In fact, Schultz conveniently neglected to mention the identity of his tour guide on that trip to Italy: Gordon Bowker himself.

"No one had ever mentioned this, no one in America knows," Schultz wrote. Utter and total bull feathers, Howard. I'm not saying you didn't see what you described, but "you didn't know"? That's a Trump-worthy rewriting of history.

Schultz had joined Starbucks from a perch as VP at Hammarplast, a Swedish housewares company. When he realized that Starbucks (a tiny outfit in far-off Seattle) was buying more drip-coffee makers than Macy's, he paid a call and decided to stay. But the founders didn't share Schultz's over-the-top enthusiasm and vision for Starbucks, so they soon sent him packing. Within a couple of years, they had a change of heart and asked him to return; his condition: that they sell him the whole company. It's none of my business, but I hope he paid them in stock, because the value of a single share has increased 250-fold since the company's IPO.

Now, we've known for some time that Starbucks has a thing for Italy. Italian names for its coffee cups (grande, venti), inaccurate or downright fake Italian words for its drinks ("latte" in Italian just means milk; there's no such thing as a Frappuccino). At the Reserve Roastery on Capitol Hill, there's a Solari board to display the day's lineup of specialty roasts. Aged Sumatra, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Chelelektu, Paradeisi, Costa Rica Bella Vista, Nicaragua La Roca, Sun-Dried Ethiopia Limu. Its newest acquisition is a bakery in Milan called Princi.

***

Dare we say this about our hometown Lolita, growing up too fast before our eyes? That she's always trying on (and tossing aside) new outfits like a petulant and moody teenager? And where does she get the money? We don't dare ask; we're afraid it might involve sneaking out the upstairs window for furtive encounters with strangers.

Driving up East Madison late last year, we thought we spotted Uncle Howie sitting in the window at Healeo, a hippie health food spot (since closed), ingesting something he no doubt found nutritious, but he was gone by the time we found parking. We wanted to ask him: when did he make the decision that Starbucks should stop being a coffee company and start being a candy store?

While we're at it, we'd like to know if anyone has kept track: how many Global Concept Officers Howie has recruited, hired, trained, motivated, and sent out into the world to certain death? Do you know if they were slaughtered or eaten alive? Has anyone ever returned from that Global Heart of Darkness?

Photos by Ronald Holden

October 2016

Watch for Part 2 of Ronald Holden's Starbucks article in our November issue.


Ronald Holden's new book about Seattle's food ecosystem, FORKING SEATTLE, is now available from Amazon.com, http://amzn.to/2cr2RwJ , or for the Kindle download, http://amzn.to/2cJapgf


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