Funny enough, I am writing this at a Starbucks cafe. Some 7-8 years back I would have not even considered going in a Starbucks.

Many years back, as a broke student I was walking around a shopping plaza somewhere in SoCal, trying to solve permanently the immediate income problem I had at the time – by finding a job.
As I was walking between Target, Albertsons, Subway and Haircuts (a progressive haircut salon) I knew I wouldn’t work for most of the above but I also knew that I would if I had to.
Then I walked into a coffee shop. I had some experience of coffee making, I liked coffee.

So I got in and asked for a job application.
The manager at the time, Chris, seemed a bit puzzled, but asked me to sit at a table and came with a paper pad in a few minutes.
He gave me a job application form and asked ‘when can you start?’ I didn’t know what to say, but rolled ‘umm, right now?’ .

He smiled and said ‘how about tomorrow morning? Do you have some polo t-shirt and  black pants?’

‘no,’ I mumbled.

‘Then buy some and come tomorrow.’

I frowned a bit to myself – it was yet another catch 22 – I needed to find the money to buy these and I needed to buy these so I could have the money.

Chris sensed that and said ‘you can’t afford them?’

Then he opened his wallet, gave me a $20 bill and said ‘8 am tomorrow. You should shave.’

I got out quickly – it was one of those blurry feelings when you feel happy that things worked out and at the same time your ego feels a bit tarnished, but the former feeling prevails (poor people can’t afford too big of an ego anyway, so in the end it’s just a small tarnished dot).

As I got out, I read the sign “Diedrich’s coffee”. Hm. I knew NOTHING about it.

I did start work the next morning. At a minimum wage. But as a bonus I got to take the leftover pastries at the end of the day – mostly bagels and some scones, which as it turns out later on, contributed to my extra 10 kg I gained over some years.

Chris was extremely nice to me, and to all other people who worked there. Here is how the staff looked over the years: me – a very skinny eastern-European with a thick accent, 2 Mexican ladies, one very sour and almost growling Chinese guy, but he was the fastest guy working the espresso machine I have ever seen, and there were whole bunch of people who were coming and going every week or two. (people didn’t like working at coffee houses because you have to walk a lot, your hands get dirty and there are some really annoying customers, so most of the short-term employees were either some people in transition, trying to figure out their next job or some teenagers sent by their parents to get a first job)

The permanent staff, though, were mostly foreigners – whether legal or illegal and some of them had been there for years.

The Mexican ladies were nice – always chatty, always smiling, no matter what time it was – and yes they were coming to open the store every morning at 5.30.

One of them, the older one – she was in her 40’s and was raising a daughter as a single parent – had been faithful to the company for almost 10 years, until one day the INS decided to raid the coffee shop. At that time she was making a bit above minimum wage – about $5.30 or so per hour. One day, the manager called her in the back room and then she came out crying, picked up her bag and left. We didn’t know what happened until couple weeks later when she came to the coffee shop as a customer, sat at the side, smiled and said: “I got fired for not having legal documents, but now I am quite happy because I make $8 per hour and the restaurant down the street, without paying taxes.”

The people kept coming and going. Even the managers kept coming and going. The corporate office had this management bonus program, which stated that the managers get a big bonus only if the coffee shop was 10 or more percent more profitable compared to the year before. A lot of managers tried, and as a result, Diedrich’s coffee was hiring for new managers every year. I learned a valuable business lesson: if you set impossible goals you will annoy people.

It only got worse. The corporate was trying to test new drinks all day and to come up with 4 colorful adjectives describing each kind of coffee: nutty, berry, mellow, robust… Just get the dictionary and pick all nice sounding words, damn it – the customers could not care less about the adjectives. The customers wanted a quality, consistent product.

The corporate, in the end, needed a happy paying customer. As simple as that.

And the biggest profit margin possible, of course. But no, not so easy to do.

The company had some history – the Diedrich family owned their own coffee plantations since  1920s, Carl Diedrich was running around with his VW to South America and back and roasting coffee since the 60s, in the 80s the business picked up, in the 90s it went public… The roasting of the beans was great, the product was great, just the marketing and the business decisions were poor.

Starbucks, on the other hand, had terrible product, had no who knows what history and did not become popular until early 90s. And then it really persistently picked up. And eventually bought out the corporate owned Diedrich stores.

So, today I really had a classy experience at Starbucks. It is not about the product only. Their coffee was mediocre. But the service, the atmosphere, the cleanliness, the organization were top of the line.

So where did Diedrich’s go wrong? Was it the purchasing of the extremely expensive coffee grinders from the company which was owned by the owner’s brother? Was it the flow of new managers all the time? Was it the poor training of the staff and lack of coordination between the corporate and the poor workers?

I am sure that Starbucks must have faced the exact same problems. But they somehow managed to go through, even with a way worse product.

So, it is not about the product only. It is about the presentation.






Category: Mental notes, Travel
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One Response
  1. minty walnut says:

    That’s quite a big bite to chew. . . More than ur usual wisdom slices; it looks like they were missing a feedback flow, if u ask me.