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March 24, 2015

In praise of Starbucks’ #racetogether

There are a lot of things wrong with how Starbucks implemented its “Race Together” program for which it deserves the mockery it’s been getting. Whether it was intended to stimulate discussions with busy baristas (“So, you want that with nonfat milk and we shouldn’t fill it to the brim. Right? What’s it like being white? Did you say ‘Nicky’ or ‘Mickey’?”) or among customers who in my experience have never struck up a conversation with another customer that was not met by a cold stare or a faked incoming text, it was unlikely to achieve its intended result. (Schultz seems to indicate it was to be a barista-to-customer conversation; see 0:20 in the John Oliver clip linked to “mockery” above.) Likewise, the overwhelming male whiteness of the Starbuck’s leadership team was an embarrassment waiting to happen. The apparent use of only white hands holding cups in the marketing campaign was inconceivably stupid (and yet still better than this).

Yet there’s much that Starbucks deserves praise for more than just its recognition that racial issues permeate our American culture and yet are more often papered over than discussed frankly.

  • They trusted their on-the-line employees to speak for themselves, and inevitably for the corporation as well, rather than relying on a handful of tightly constrained and highly compensated mouthpieces.

  • They have held a series of open forums for their employees at corporate events, encouraging honest conversation.

  • They did not supply talking points for their employees to mouth. That’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, they seem also to have provided no preparation for their baristas, as if anyone can figure out how to open up a productive conversation about race in America. The made-up phrase “racetogether” really isn’t enough to get a conversation going and off to a good start. (Michelle Norris’ Race Card Project might have provided a better way of opening conversations.)

Starbucks got lots wrong. Too bad. But not only was it trying to do something right, it did so in some admirable ways. Starbucks deserves the sarcasm but not just sarcasm.

[Disclosure: No, Starbucks isn’t paying me to say any of this. Plus I hate their coffee. (The fact that I feel the need to put in this disclaimer is evidence of the systemic damage wrought by “native ads” and unscrupulous marketers.)]

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September 28, 2011

The coffee-shopping of everything

David Strom at ReadWriteWeb notes a trend at hotels to re-jigger lobbies as social spaces in which you can plug in your laptop and hang out, instead of sitting in your disinfected Rectangle of Solitude.

I’d give it a try, especially if free or cheap coffee were involved. I think I might enjoy the company, although if someone actually tried to talk with me, I’d undoubtedly give him the stink eye so I could get back to work. Hey, just because I want to be near other human beings doesn’t mean I want to be your friend.

So, yes, I would want to achieve that refined balance of social and impersonal that is of increasing importance in today’s ever-more-public world, and that is at the heart of Starbucks’ value proposition.

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July 27, 2010

Starbuck’s barista heuristics

I just came across (via Megan McArdle) this piece by Gregor Hohpe from 2004 that analyzes Starbuck’s way of queuing orders — the cashier writes your order on a cup that gets filled asynchronously by the coffee-machine oeprator — in computer processing terms. Fascinating.

Clearly, a computer program could do a better job of optimizing for the most rapid throughput, while minimizing customer delay and keeping customer orders batched together successfully. So, you can imagine the cashier inputting the order electronically, and the barista working from a properly queued list put together by the computer.

Unfortunately, this is one of those places where the real world seems to prevent proper algorithmic optimization. What do you do about the cup of coffee that has to be remade because the customer wanted a double half skim double latte, not a half double double skim latte? What do you do about the cup that spills on its way to the customer’s hands? What do you do about the customer with the spilled coffee on her hands demanding that you top it up while she calls her lawyer?

If only life were more like a computer!

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April 10, 2009

This election brought to you by Starbucks

Well, not exactly. Starbucks is offering a free cup of coffee to everyone who votes in the Indonesian elections. (Via Mong Palatino at GlobalVoices

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