business news in context, analysis with attitude

This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

Hi, Kevin Coupe here, and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

This week’s video was recorded at the new Starbucks Roastery in New York City, which was opened in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in mid-December.

I’ve always been a big fan of the theatricality of the original Roastery in Seattle - it always has struck me as a unique sort of brand and image builder, with the added advantage of offering great coffee drinks - while having expressed some reservations about the company’s plans to open a bunch of these. Those reservations are largely connected to a concern that when (not “if”) the economy begins to falter, Starbucks might be focusing too much on an upscale format that might not do well in that environment.

It may be that the current CEO, Kevin Johnson, shares those concerns; he’s let the world know that the Roastery and Reserve stores were former CEO Howard Schultz’s babies, and he doesn’t seem to share his predecessor’s infatuation with the formats.

Having now spent some time in the New York Roastery, I have a lot more reservations, mostly because I’m not sure Starbucks may be capable of delivering on the promise - it was one of the most disappointing and mediocre experiences I’ve ever had at any Starbucks, anywhere. Period.

Let me detail our visit for you.

I visited the Roastery with Mrs. Content Guy, who never had been to the Seattle version; I’d been talking about it since my first visit there and, knowing she is a Starbucks fan, I was looking forward to bringing her to the NYC outpost.

We walked in, and it was pretty busy. We were welcomed by a nice young woman, who informed us that while there were different sections for different offerings, if we went to the upper level bar, we could have an adult beverage as well as any coffee drink and bakery offering from elsewhere in the store. That sounded good to me.

We walked up the stairs and found a seat at a low table, and after a few minutes a waitress came along and offered us menus. Mrs. Content Guy was in the mood for coffee instead of alcohol, so she asked for the specialty coffee menu … and was informed that those drinks only were available at the specialty coffee bar below us. (Not what we’d been told.) That’s okay, she said, she’d just have a large nonfat latte with two Splendas (which is what she would order at any old Starbucks). I ordered what sounded like a pretty cool bourbon-and-coffee drink (for $20!), and we settled on some pizza.

It took awhile, but eventually she came with Mrs. Content Guy’s latte … but she told us that she didn’t have any Splenda, so she brought raw sugar. (She also didn’t bring anything to stir it with.) Wait a minute, I said. You don’t have any Splenda in the entire place? She said that they had it downstairs, not upstairs, and left, promising to bring me my drink right away.

I got up, walked downstairs, and got two Splendas and a stirrer, and brought it back to our seats. It took all of 30 seconds.

About 10 minutes later, the pizza showed up, and she said that she’d have my drink for me right away. The pizza was pretty good, but 10 or 15 minutes after that, the latter was gone, the pizza was almost gone, and my drink hadn’t shown up yet.

I waved her over and told her to cancel my drink order, at which point she explained that it was some sort of pour-over drink that took 15 minutes to make. I pointed out that a) it was well over 15 minutes since we’d ordered it, and b) if she’s mentioned at at the beginning, it might’ve been a different story. About two minutes later, she brought me the drink - and to her credit, told me that it was on the house. (It actually was pretty tasty, though not worth a 20+ minute wait and $20.)

While I was sipping my drink, Mrs. Content Guy said she wanted to use the restroom. I told her that if it was like Seattle, it would be an interesting experience, since the facilities are entirely unisex - everybody goes into the same room, goes into stalls, and then when done use common sinks. There was a sign pointing out that the restrooms were down a flight of nearby stairs, and off she went.

About 10 minutes later she came back, though from a different direction, and informed me that while the bathrooms were conceptually kind of cool, when she went into a stall she found ample evidence that some men lack civilized bathroom habits. (She was considerably more descriptive than that, to be honest.) And then, when she attempted to go back up the stairs to return to our seats, she was informed by a security guard that management had a rule - only employees could go up and down those stairs, and that while guests could come down them, they had to return upstairs via a more roundabout route.

Really? Well, this got my curiosity going, and so I decided to use the restroom myself. Down the stairs, no problem. Into the restroom. Chose a different stall than Mrs. Content Guy. Found yet more evidence that some men, at least, are pigs. And then, when trying to go back upstairs, had the same conversation with the security guard. Except that I pumped him a bit, asking him who exactly the “management” was that was laying down such seemingly arbitrary rules. He rolled his eyes and commented that “management” was micromanaging everything, and that if those people would spend more time on the coffee and less time on security, letting them do their job, things would work better. He clearly thought the stairs rule was stupid, but needed to do as he was told.

Oh, well. As we paid the check and put on our coats, Mrs. Content Guy looked at me, told me that she loved me, and then told me never to take her this place ever again. She hated it. A lot.

I know when not to argue, so we ventured downstairs to the front door, where I could see that the Lyft car that I’d called via the app was waiting for us. There was nobody coming in the front door, but the dour-looking guard there wouldn’t let us go out. People going out had to use the side door, he said.

Who says so, I said.

“Management,” he said.

It didn’t seem like the time or place to argue, so off we went. Besides, I knew I’d get the last word here.

The negative power of “can’t” can be enormous in a retail environment. It creates the illusion - or the reality - that the customer is less important than arbitrary rules and processes. At the Roastery, what always has been promoted as the Starbucks ethos seems not to exist. Even if this experience was unusual and isolated, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and the New York City Starbucks blew it.

One other thing. This may be entirely unfair, but I have to wonder if this would’ve happened if Howard Schultz had still been in charge. All the stuff that went wrong strike me as the kinds of things to which he would’ve paid close attention.

Anyway, that is my experience and what is on my mind. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: