April 16, 2005

Saved by technology?

Buried in this interesting article about the World Barista Championships in Seattle and U.S. champion barista Phuong Tran's preparations for the competition is some interesting news about Starbucks. Spokeswoman Lara Wyss says that the chain is planning to install automated espresso machines in all of its locations. This means that all a Starbucks "barista" will be responsible for is pushing a button and steaming milk. We'll never be able to experience the abilities of a top-notch barista like Tran at a Starbucks ever again.

I wonder, now that they've dumbed down the job considerably, whether wages and benefits for the "baristas" at Starbucks will start to look more like those other button-pushers, the "cooks" at McDonald's. But I don't want to give the impression that I think automation is an entirely bad thing.

From now on, you'll probably never get a badly-drawn shot of espresso at Starbucks (not that any of you who order foo-foo drinks like decaf nonfat sugar-free lattes would ever notice). If there's really no more room for the virtuoso barista to ply her trade at Starbucks, at least the stoned-out slackers that constitute a distinct minority of the workforce won't be able to screw up your espresso.

Now if only the Starbucks on South University here in Ann Arbor could install an automated system to do something much simpler than draw espresso shots: take the scones out of the freezer in the morning. Twice in the last week I've gone in there around 8 am looking for my morning fix, and the employee blithely told me that all the scones were still frozen solid in the back. If Starbucks ever wants to try out a completely automated store, that one on South U should be it. Quality would improve.

I wonder whether, in the end, automation is more effective at preventing human beings from screwing up, or is more effective at keeping human beings like Ms. Tran from exercising her virtuosity. Sadly, I suspect the latter is most likely true. It may be easier to stamp out human excellence than it is to protect ourselves from human stupidity.

Posted by Carey at April 16, 2005 05:29 PM
Comments

Well, I think that it's both. The price of uniformity is, I think, a lack of excellence. It's also a lack of incompetence, too.

But machine-enforced uniformity means that you can't avoid incompetence the usual way. Which is to say, you can't go to the perpetual suppliers of scones, the Starbucks on State & Liberty, in disgusted protest at the Starbucks on South U.

Posted by: Heidi at April 16, 2005 09:20 PM

i worked for starbucks for 4 years during undergrad and medical school. i was horrified when i walked into my old store and saw the beautiful la marzocco had been replaced with one of the automated monstrosities.

while the new machines may pull more consistent shots, they are of inferior quality. the barista does not have to pay attention to the way the shot is pouring - how is the crema holding, etc.

as far as the pastries at starbucks - well, i won't even go there. the stores used to get fresh pastries from local vendors, but ran into consistency problems. now, it is all frozen. plus, i should warn you that even something as innocuous as the scone has 400-500 calories. for that price, give me some bacon and eggs!

finally, starbucks has actually been increasing benefits as of late. they offer incredible insurance and retirement benefits (to part-timers, no less!), and recently began to offer tuition reimbursement.

Posted by: japhy at April 18, 2005 10:22 AM

I worked as a barista in Denver for about six months (not at Starbucks). There really is a lot to learn about making good espresso. I have a lot of respect for people who can do it really well, and do it quickly.

I don't think I got enough practice in six months to consistenly pull good shots, but at least I got the chance to practice. If I'd been using an automated monstrosity, I wouldn't appreciate skilled baristas as much as I do.

Posted by: Carey at April 18, 2005 09:43 PM