The cult of Starbucks and why a good barista matters

By bfishadow on Flickr, Creative Commons use

What’s the biggest indicator of a specialty coffee shop’s success? Not the location. Not the ratio of couches to stools. Not the kind of soft-rock-alt-folk-jazz coming from the overhead speakers. Not even how good the coffee is.

It’s the baristas, according to a J.D. Power and Associates study cited today at Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News blog:

The report measures overall customer satisfaction with specialty coffee retailers by examining five key factors in order of importance. They are: staff (34%), merchandise (23%), cost (18%), facility (14%) and sales/promotions (11%).

The study gave Starbucks’ staff top marks, ahead of Caribou and Seattle’s Best and tied only with Dutch Bros. Coffee, which won the overall “best specialty coffee retailer” award.

Having friendly and knowledgeable baristas promotes attachment to the coffee shop brand — you feel at home. That also probably determines the degree to which customers are willing to fork over time and money for their coffee experience:

The report finds that customers spend an average of $7.31 per visit to a specialty coffee retailer. The average amount of time customers spend in the checkout line is 6.3 minutes.

This all relates to a March 2013  article on the Huffington Post examining why Starbucks continues to be so successful, despite its reputation as “the McDonald’s of the coffee industry” and large numbers of people (myself included) who dislike the taste of Starbucks coffee. The key is brand loyalty — that is, everything surrounding the coffee itself:

“The enduring brand loyalty is about the core offerings, which is not just coffee,” Raghubir explained. “It is the experience of going to Starbucks.”

Interestingly, this “Starbucks experience” can also cut the other way as independent coffee shops try to differentiate themselves from the green giant. In a Slate post titled “How Do You Compete With Starbucks in the Coffee Industry?” cafe owner Peter Baskerville offers this advice for independent coffee shops:

It’s OK to be familiar with your customers: Chains like Starbucks can’t risk their brand value by allowing service standards to be determined by their transient university student staff, so they create and enforce strict codes and processes for “serving” customers, which I think is inappropriate for the high-repeating clientele. Long-term independent cafe owners are not so constrained and can leverage the opportunity that multiple visits creates, to become familiar with their customers.

This seems to be the trend: Starbucks has mastered the art of repeatable routines, but independent cafe baristas still have a lot of opportunity to build customers’ loyalty to their “brand.” Starbucks baristas — at least according to the J.D. Power survey — tend to be knowledgeable and fast because they’ve had training drilled into them over and over. This is why you can walk up to a Starbucks and know exactly what you’re in for. Starbucks is comforting, predictable and unsurprising.

Independent coffee shops have different opportunities. They, too, can have friendly and knowledgeable baristas who are trained with Starbucks-like drilling and memorization. They might not have Starbucks-level brand recognition, but the people behind the counter are more important than the range of menu options or anything else. Bonus: They also know the community better, they have more flexibility — and they don’t all play the same Norah Jones albums over and over and over. Then again, J.D. Power and Associates didn’t ask their survey respondents about that.


Just like the latte art competitions I mentioned a few days ago, did you know that there are national barista competitions?

Read what a Starbucks barista learned from the job. 


Video of the week: The ‘Willy Wonka’ of latte art

Mike Breach is a barista who goes way beyond hearts and leaves when he turns latte foam into art.

Watch this video and see how Breach makes faces, cityscapes and other images in the fragile space on top of a latte:

For more, check out Mike Breach’s Tumblr, Baristart.

Related: Did you know that there are latte art competitions?