Starbucks Lost

Apologies to John Milton. I don’t mean at all that I think of Starbucks as Paradise, but it is true that I have seen a Starbucks that was a lot closer than any Starbucks I now know. I feel sad about it, but when I look back at what made “my Starbucks” so very wonderful, it seems unlikely that it could have lasted even as long as it did. [1]

I don’t want to make this essay about Jennifer. Not exactly. I want to make it about the e11cec8d84f8ee5a1ed0e608b320851a--coffee-gif-i-love-coffeestyle of service she offered as a barista and taught as a manager of baristas. But to do that, I will have to tell you a little about her so you don’t imagine that the kind of service she provided was disembodied and abstract. It was not. She embodied that quality of customer service herself and she made it a part of nearly all the waves (it is tempting for me to think of them as “generations”) of baristas who were fortunate enough to come under her pedagogy.

The names of these neighborhoods won’t mean anything to you if you don’t live in Portland, Oregon on the west side of the Willamette River, but the Starbucks where I met Jennifer served the Hillsdale neighborhood. She was the assistant manager and very likely much more. She had an extraordinary collection of baristas working there. [2]

Then she moved about a mile west to become the manager of the Multnomah Village Starbucks and I moved with her. She had an extraordinary collection of baristas working there. That’s when I began to get suspicious. It could just be a coincidence, I cautioned myself.

It was not.

It is not just that her own manner of greeting and welcoming and serving customers was superb; it is that it was exemplary. Literally.

Every transaction had a bonus with it. There was always some more personal or more gracious or more welcoming way to do the things that had to be done to make the place work. It’s just, after all, selling coffee. You really don’t have to do all those other things.

After a collection of us had been at the Starbucks together for awhile, we began to swap Jennifer stories and that helped us notice things we might not have noticed before or, more likely, to put the things we noticed into Jennifer-related categories. It was in the contest of those discussions that we began to talk about the “Jennifer Effect.”

Baristas came to the Multnomah Village store from a lot of different backgrounds. Some transferred from other stores, which had other cultures, particularly the drive-through stores. Some were brand new baristas. Some came from stores where there had been neglectful managers, who gave no real teaching. All of these would, in a very short period of time, begin to show the Jennifer Effect. [3]

camelot 2They would begin to add the personal touches to the transactions. One I remember is the change from “What is your name?” if a name needed to be taken for an order, to “May I have your name for the order?” Little things; classy things. They just began to creep into the language and behavior of the new people, which is why the group called it “the Jennifer Effect.”

That was some time ago, I regret to say. Jennifer is now studying for her masters degree in counseling at Lewis and Clark College, which has a very good counseling psychology program. [4]

And why am I writing this now?

Well…something ugly happened to me at that Starbucks this week. It wasn’t AWFUL, except in principle, but it was something that would not have happened when Jennifer’s customer orientation oriented the staff. The actual problem was a small one. I kept ordering my breakfast sandwich on a plate, and it kept coming in a bag. That’s not such a big deal, is it?

This week, I mentioned the problem to the the current manager, who, because she was making lattés, was the closest person to me at the time. Her response was that it wasn’t her fault.


So…I pointed out that my order was not being fulfilled—not just this time, but on several occasions in the past as well. I am a long term customer with a complaint. I would expect that the response would be something about the complaint. What I am talking about is the first item on the agenda.

“I’m so sorry that happened,” would be a good first step. “I know you like to have your sandwich on a plate,” wouldn’t be a bad followup. “Let us bring you another one” wouldn’t hurt, even if I turned it down. All those responses have the common virtue of being about the complaint. And, frankly, they all sound a good deal like a Jennifer-trained manager.

None of those happened. The response presupposed that the real question—the question that needed to be answered while I stood there at the counter—was whose fault it was. So the sandwich agenda got itself replaced by the personal responsibility agenda. It works like this: let’s not talk about the bad service you got; let’s talk about whose fault it was. Or, most particularly, whose fault it was not. It was not, said the manager, the manager’s fault.

I don’t actually care whose fault it was. Considering the kind of effect Jennifer had on her staff, I think a case could be made that the persistent mishandling of my order actually was the manager’s problem. I don’t care all that much about the sandwich. The thing that struck me most forcefully was the vast change that had taken place so quickly. Not very long ago, it was “Starbucks is the place where we count on meeting or exceeding your expectations.” And very quickly, it has come down to “It isn’t my fault.”

And, of course, now that you know whose fault it wasn’t, that ought to take care of your concerns as a customer. Right? I mean, right? Not really.

Not “Paradise,” maybe.  Maybe just Camelot.

[1] My favorite story about the Hillsdale store happened one morning when Jennifer wasn’t even there. It was at a time when Marilyn could no longer drink coffee so I would fiddle with the teabag while the barista made my coffee. I would take the bag out of the sealed envelope, put the bag in the hot water, wad up the envelope and throw it into the trash container on the other side of the counter. I nearly always hit it, but one morning I missed. The barista, on his way from one machine to another, stopped and picked it up and put it back on the counter so I could try again. He didn’t even say anything. He may not even have looked at me. It makes me happy just to remember it. I put it in on my second try.

[2] I fell in love with the place when Marilyn and I used to go there. When Marilyn died, I fell even more in love with the place because there were competent friendly people there and they opened at 5:00 a.m. I had a lot of bad nights after Marilyn died, but I almost always felt I could hang on until 5:00 and then I could get up. And then I met Bette at a Starbucks and it wasn’t entirely a joke—maybe a little bit—when I gave her Starbucks stock as a wedding present.
[3] It wasn’t gender-specific, by the way. It worked on men who came to work there as well as women. Of course, it expressed itself differently in the men than it did in the women.
[4] I got a chance to write a recommendation for her. My translation of the skills and the orientation that produced the Jennifer Effect to the skills that made her a good bet for admission to graduate study was one of the best recommendations I ever wrote.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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