New Starbucks Brew
Attracts Customers, Flak
Fans of Bold Coffee Bemoan the Rise Of Pike Place Roast
WSJ, July 1, 2008
A backlash is brewing against Starbucks Corp. over its Pike Place Roast coffee, which has perked up the company's sales by attracting new business, but has alienated a small yet vocal group of longtime patrons.
In April, the Seattle-based chain made the new, milder brew the main drip coffee at its about 11,000 locations across the country. The idea was to offer a more approachable cup of java with a smoother finish.
But the new strategy, which played down the company's more-established robust roasts, has touched off a debate about what customers think Starbucks should stand for: bold coffee for connoisseurs or a tamer brew for the masses?
Much of that debate is taking place on the company's customer-feedback Web site, which the chain launched in March. The site is littered with thumbs-down verdicts on the new roast. Some small competitors have posted messages there trying to woo away disenchanted Starbucks drinkers.
A customer with the handle Westend complained in a posting on the site that the flavor of Pike Place Roast is "weak, watery and no substitute for the bold." Another, ArtM, called the coffee "a fundamental, grievous error." Beccajav derided its finish as "reminiscent of a taste from the dentist's office."
But Starbucks executives say the chain's aggressive marketing of Pike Place Roast has been a success. Since its introduction, Starbucks' sales of drip coffee have risen by between 5% and 15%, depending on the part of the country, the company says.
"Our satisfaction metrics are up across the board," says Rob Grady, Starbucks' vice president, global beverage. Most of the sales increase in drip coffee has come from new customers "that historically might have not come into Starbucks," he adds.
Starbucks used to brew three types of coffee each day: one bold, one mild and one decaffeinated. The lineup changed weekly.
Now Starbucks outlets serve Pike Place Roast in regular and decaf versions every day. In the morning, stores also brew one of the chain's six bold flavors, like Gold Coast or Caffe Verona. But most Starbucks no longer brew a bold coffee after noon.
The new coffee has clearly struck a chord with some coffee drinkers. But other Starbucks patrons complain that it's gotten hard to buy the stronger-tasting blends on which Starbucks built its reputation. Two weeks ago, after getting thousands of pleas on its Web site, Starbucks again started brewing bold-flavored coffee in the afternoon at some of its locations.
Since New Coke flopped in the 1980s, food and beverage companies have been cautious about changing the taste or formula of their signature offerings. McDonald's Corp., for instance, has kept quiet about the changes in its cooking oil and Big Mac sauce in recent years, in part to minimize the potential for a backlash.
"The worst thing you can do is turn away your loyal customers," says Ron Paul, president of the food consulting firm Technomic Inc. "It's a very risky strategy."
For Starbucks, however, the controversy has succeeded in creating a buzz around the chain's brewed coffees after years in which it largely neglected them in favor of its fancier and pricier coffee-flavored drinks.
Starbucks' Mr. Grady adds that the chain's customers who want a stronger blend of coffee can always ask the barista behind the counter to brew them a cup specially. But some regulars say strong coffee shouldn't require a special order at a chain that popularized it. And some customers who say they have asked a barista to make them a cup of bold coffee say they have been refused.
Pike Place Roast, named for the first Starbucks, located in Seattle's Pike Place Market, has been widely interpreted as the company's attempt to address complaints that its coffee tastes bitter or burnt. But its executives say that wasn't their goal.
Customers were confused by the frequently changing blends available at the company's outlets and wanted something more consistent, says Anthony Carroll, Starbucks manager of green-coffee quality. Surveys of 1,500 consumers also showed they wanted coffee with a smoother finish, he says.
With Chief Executive Howard Schultz pushing for quick action to reverse the company's sliding same-store sales in the U.S., Starbucks developed Pike Place Roast and put it in the company's stores in six months. That's about a year less than it typically takes the chain to refine and implement major new ideas.
Last fall, Mr. Carroll and his colleagues "locked ourselves" in a tasting room at Starbucks headquarters and went through at least 50 coffee blends to settle on the new flavor, Mr. Carroll says. They adjusted the taste by changing variables like the temperature at which the beans were roasted.
"We know what the Starbucks profile is -- it's very near and dear to all of us -- and we weren't going to waver from that signature Starbucks flavor," Mr. Carroll says. He and his team narrowed the field to a group of blends that Mr. Schultz tasted to help make the final choice. Earlier this year, Starbucks tested the coffee with consumers, mostly in the Seattle area.
The new blend won Starbucks a more favorable review from Consumer Reports than the magazine's 2007 assessment, which declared Starbucks coffee "burnt and bitter."
"If you're a confirmed Starbucks drinker and like the taste you're familiar with, this may not be for you," the magazine wrote in a May posting on its Web site. "But if you're looking for coffee with a mild, medium-roasted flavor, Pike Place Roast might be the one to try."
Jolene Tapie of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., decided the new coffee wasn't for her. "I just couldn't believe that Starbucks would even serve something that bland, tasteless, watery," she says. Ms. Tapie used to visit Starbucks at least three times a week on her way home from her job in a high-school records office. But when her nearby Starbucks replaced the bold blends she favored with Pike Place Roast in the afternoon, she started going to local coffee shops instead.
"I am shocked and disappointed that you have abandoned your original vision," a poster identified as WestPalm wrote on mystarbucksidea.com, the company's feedback site. "You need to wake up before it's too late." Thousands of votes of support for his stance and others like it helped persuade the company to restore a bold coffee variety to the afternoon lineup at about 900 of its locations.
Mr. Grady says Starbucks anticipated complaints. "Every time we change something ... there will be customers that liked it the way it was," he says.