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Book Review - Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture by Taylor Clark

Category Book Review Taylor Clark Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine Commerce and Culture
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While in a training class, a coworker recommended that I read this book...  Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture by Taylor Clark.  Now, I'm not a coffee drinker, so it's not like I have some overwhelming love-hate relationship with Starbucks.  But I *have* wondered about the reality of how they operate, and how a company can place stores across from one another and *still* hit max sales in both locations.  Clark does an excellent job in telling the Starbucks story, both the good and the bad sides...

Introduction: The Experiment
Part 1 - The Rise of the Mermaid: Life Before Lattes; A Caffeinated Craze; The Siren's Song; Leviathan
Part 2 - Getting Steamed: Storm Brewing; A Fair Trade?; What's In Your Cup; Green-Apron Army; The Seattle Colonies
Epilogue - The Last Drop
Acknowledgments; Notes; Index

Clark was a reporter and writer for the Willamette Week paper here in Portland.  If you're familiar with WW, then you know that they have no qualms about going after anyone and anything that appears to be playing a less-than-honest game with the public.  Therefore, I somewhat expected this to be a slanted, Starbucks-is-evil rant of the first degree.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out otherwise.  Clark goes back to the early days of Starbucks, when Zev Siegl, Gordon Bowker, and Jerry Baldwin decided that they didn't want to endure any more bad coffee in Seattle, so they traveled down to Alfred Peet's coffeeshop in Berkeley to get a crash course on how to roast coffee beans properly.  Given that percolated and instant coffee was the overwhelming choice of the American coffee drinker, the attention to detail and quality they learned at Peet's delivered a coffee experience that most had never experienced.  It took awhile for Seattlites to get accustomed to the darker blend, but once it caught on the lines were never-ending.  What moved Starbucks into the fast lane of growth was the hiring of Howard Schultz.  He pestered the owners to get a job as director of marketing, and eventually ended up becoming the CEO and face of the company.  Along the way, Schultz and Starbucks broke just about every rule of how food/drink chains work and operate, and they have become the overwhelming leader in the world of coffee marketing.  It's a financial success story by any measure, but underneath that success lies a less-talked-about reality.

Starbucks presents an image of humanitarian concern and specialized service.  And at the beginning, those corporate values were solidly ingrained in just about every employee.  But when you grow as quickly as they have, it's impossible to keep those same values without having them diluted along the way.  Clark documents how Starbucks doesn't do much more than pay lip services to the Fair Trade coffee movement.  The image of specialized baristas learning to mix your drinks has given way to automated espresso machines that only require a couple of button presses to operate.  And while everyone working over 20 hours a week (on average) can get health insurance, the normal wage is barely above minimum.  Couple that with shift scheduling that is often without rhyme or reason, and the person behind the counter isn't necessarily getting a great deal.  The image and reality of working at Starbucks are divided by a significant chasm, and after Clark is done, you understand why.

Starbucked is not the only book out there about the coffee giant.  But it is one of the few that I feel doesn't have a vested interest in hyping or vilifying the company.  If you've read any of the Starbucks books written by their senior management over the last few years, you owe it to yourself to follow up with this title.  You'll still come away with an appreciation for what they've been able to accomplish, as well as the necessary insights to be able to view the company as it really is (rather than what management would like you to think they are).

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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