Fast Coffee vs. Fast Food

Over the past few years, Starbucks has been laying off employees and closing down storefronts to make up for lost revenue during the recession, but they're also now operating in a more crowded competitive space. Where they once dominated the market for quickly prepped gourmet espresso drinks, larger players are coming to the table and upping the ante.

Competing against fast-food chains, like McDonalds, who's playing hardball by providing their customers with coffee drinks with all the frills but at a lower cost, Starbucks is trying to lure back their coffee connoisseurs who've been bedazzled by fast-food prices by offering free internet and access to e-books and sites that usually come at a cost. They've also begun mandating a slow down in service that would limit a barista's drink prep to just one drink at a time -- clearly in an effort to show customers some level of artisan skill in the face of the fast-food, assembly-line approach they used before (and from which they are more actively trying to differentiate themselves). This comes into play even more when you consider the 'third wave' coffee movement's focus on the culinary rather than commodity attributes of the mighty bean.

Another way they're trying to compete is by making their food options more healthy, reinventing their menu by 'raising the bar on food to be tastier' with 'healthier and lighter options.' Making baked goods that are healthy but without the cardboard taste, Starbucks has incorporated organic blueberries, a higher percentage of real bananas and has made marshmallow squares less of a guilty pleasure at only 210 calories. But other than slimming down their treats, they've also added healthier drinks and lunch alternatives by taking a queue from local farmer's markets. With basic yet natural options, they now have smoothies and salads (i.e. Strawberry Banana Vivanno and Farmer's Market Salad) made from real produce, which, again, carry less of a calorie count.

Is this what a Starbucks customer really wants, though? If the company grew to become a competitor in the international food market that is on par with McDonald's by implementing many of the same operational techniques, can they roll these back in a sufficiently effective way to court customers back to their cafes? And how healthy has Starbucks really gotten when you see statistics comparing a 483-calorie Mocha Frappe Latte with semi-skimmed milk almost on par with a 492-calorie Big Mac?

6 thoughts on “Fast Coffee vs. Fast Food”

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  • Rami

    OMG! a coffee drink as fattening as a big mac? r u kidding me??

  • Eric

    I think everyone knows that Starbucks is the coffee equivalent of fast food, regardless of what they try next to change that perception. However, the 3rd wave coffee movement has so far only blossomed in a select few major places: Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and North Carolina, mostly. So for you guys, blessed by geography, I hope that 3rd wave customers never go back to Starbucks, but instead view Starbucks as an introductory stage in their development of coffee appreciation as they moved towards artisan coffee.

    However, in other cities, where the 3rd wave is only just surfacing, coffee consumers have no idea that there are even other options.
    I'd be interesting in seeing how Starbuck's new mandate for a "slow down in service" to give the impression of a more artisan approach to brewing will turn out. At starbucks, a customer will never truly see an artisan approach to brewing, which would entail the barista grinding, tamping, use a portafilter, or steam milk to a proper texture and temperature. "I'm going to slowly PUSH THIS BUTTON" which will do all that stuff for me, is about all the barista can say. Finally, consumers who have tasted the roast profiles of artisan roasted coffees will probably never go back to starbucks as long as they overroast nearly all their coffees to hide their many deficiencies, resulting in a smoky, burnt taste rather than a nuanced, complex one. Of course, Kat, you probably agree with all of this already...but I guess I'm just bored and this is all about having a fun conversation :)

    New Orleans

  • Garrett L.

    Interesting article Kat, thanks for writing it too. An interesting twist is that Starbucks is experimenting (via corporate) with serving alcoholic beverages to add to their lineup. Now with them trying to keep up with the fast food folks, I find it ironic after "healthy-upping" their menus while adding alcohol. I would be interested to see the mandatory slow-down too.

  • andrew

    If they wanted to go for a more artisan approach, they should of gone back to the semi automatics instead of the super autos they have now.

  • Wendy

    Well I agree with the chain mentality of Starbucks, one can't get the same vibe for that neighborhood coffee shop with with scuffed furniture and the welcoming colors. On the other hand, those coffee places certainly cater to a certain demographic and the baristas are surly. What's one to do? Personally, I've tried many of these places and I don't believe their coffee is at such a higher level to consistently patronize. I plan on making the best coffee at home, save money, and be satisfied.

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