Has Starbucks Outgrown its Seattle Roaster Story?

It’s mail-order mochachino time! Starbucks is starting a subscription service for premium coffee beans to be shipped to your doorstep in an effort to woo back coffee snobs across the nation. Chief Executive Howard Schultz made a bold statement on the service, claiming it will be the “freshest, fastest, and most innovative whole bean coffee experience in the marketplace.”

But will it be?

Over the years, I’ve started to feel Starbucks is just Dunkin’ Donuts all grown up. Dunkin is the teenager rocking out in pink and orange, lower prices, basic food items and a focus on the “go, go, go!” of it all (America RUNS on Dunkin!). Starbucks is more seasoned in its subdued green, higher prices, gourmet sandwiches and focus on being “zen” (sit in our easy chairs, listen to Nora Jones and stay awhile). But the simple fact that either of these experiences can be recreated across any of the Dunkin’ or Starbucks franchises in the country, to me, conveys that the “fresh” factor may be fading.

How many copies can you make of the original before the image gets so distorted it’s no longer recognizable? Or special?

I drink Starbucks coffee, and I like it. It’s close to my office, and I prefer it to Dunkin’ Donuts and many other brands. I consider myself something of a coffee snob, though I’ve talked with foodies who make me feel like I’m nowhere close to actually being “uppity” about my java. For me, the experience of coffee includes where and how I get it. Starbucks still feels like an experience, but not a special one.

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine a “spectrum” of coffee experiences. All the way to the left, we have “instant coffee stirred into a Styrofoam cup.” All the way to the right, we have “locally roasted beans, freshly ground to brew, and hand-poured into a ceramic mug.”

When Starbucks started, I would have plotted it somewhere on the right half of the spectrum, and Dunkin’ would have been below the midpoint somewhere on the left side. Now, I’d say that Starbucks has slid down to the left side somewhere close to Dunkin’. It has become so commercial and corporate that the experience is starting to feel more about the brand than the beans. Any time I go to Starbucks, I’m surrounded by a wall of products and collateral pieces plastered with the logo (which I’m still not sure isn’t a spread-eagled mermaid, but I digress).

It’s getting hard to imagine the small Seattle coffee roaster when it feels like you’re buying coffee in a corporate gift shop.

That’s why I’ve been getting my coffee fix from a local shop a block away from my office. On the spectrum, it’s all the way to the right. It’s a marvelous world of hand-poured coffees, smooth-as-silk lattes, foam-art cappuccinos and tiny shots of perfect espresso. Nobody’s name is written on their order with a Sharpie, nobody’s coffee is handed to them by someone in a green smock, and the bar has the personality of a thoughtful artist, as opposed to the “brand guidelines” of a corporation trying to play “small business.”

The truth is, in this world of craft beers, gourmet coffees and specialty teas, it’s become easier to show consumers that the “little guys” can give you the same (or better) experience as the market leaders. Starbucks may have created the mainstream coffee connoisseur, but it’s unrealistic for them to believe they could hold on to them forever. Even by placing their freshly roasted, premium beans on our doorsteps, they can’t beat the local roaster down the block who is not only making a helluva cup of coffee, but a difference in the local community.

Sustainability trends, in part, have encouraged us to support small, love local and pay where you play. Once upon a time, a small Seattle roaster probably inspired its community to do all of these things. Starbucks was born, and it was successful — but it’s time to turn the page.

The story has changed.

When Oprah endorses your teas, when your breakfast sandwiches arrive at your shop prepackaged off a food truck, when your beans are sold in supermarkets, and you’re able to sue people for using words like “Frappuccino,” you’ve outgrown the small-town story that helped make you so special.

It doesn’t make Starbucks a bad company, it just makes them a company that might struggle to create a fresh coffee experience.