It's been quite a year for Starbucks, America's largest and most discussed coffee purveyor. After a few sluggish years, the coffee giant was back on top this year thanks to advances in technology, improvements in store design, attention to today's coffee brewing culture, and CEO Howard Schultz. It wasn't all good news though; there were a few missteps along the way. Here are the 11 most important things that happened to Starbucks in 2015, organized into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Flat White
Starbucks kicked off 2016 by adopting a niche beverage invented in Australia. The Flat White, a small latte-style hot coffee drink with frothier milk foam, hit the menu at all locations in January. Starbucks' version is made from two (smaller, more concentrated) ristretto espresso shots topped with whole milk steamed to a "micro foam." The method of pouring leaves a steamed-milk dot at the top of the drink.
After testing it out in 2014, Starbucks introduced cold brew coffee at locations in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, New York metro area, and Midwest this past March. Cold brew has been available nationwide since July. Third wave coffeehouse Stumptown told Eater it was "thrilled" that cold brew "has proven itself in the market" and was hitting such a big stage. Along with Starbucks' Reserve stores and Roasteries, the introduction of the Flat White and Cold Brew signaled to American coffee snobs that Starbucks knew how to do more than sticky sweet Frappuccinos.
Pumpkin Spice Lattes Made With Real Pumpkin
In 2014, the media world discovered that Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte, the drink that spurred the pumpkin spice trend, contained no actual pumpkin. In 2015 Starbucks introduced a Pumpkin Spice Latte made with actual pumpkin. And all was well in the land.
Starbucks Mobile App
This was the year Starbucks owned mobile technology. Its app became an example in the restaurant space, ultimately leading to unforeseen fiscal growth throughout the year as users embraced several new features. Of primary importance was Starbucks' eventual embrace of Apple Pay. But what really took the coffee and chain restaurant industry by storm was the moment Starbucks proved it could own mobile ordering, pay ahead technology, and delivery. This was the year Starbucks gave its customers a way to skip the line. Taco Bell, McDonald's, and others rushed to add similar options to their apps, but Starbucks is far ahead of the pack.
Starbucks has always put a lot of thought into its counter service, but this year it rolled out delivery. Along with mobile order and pay, which allows customers to skip the line and head right to the pick-up counter, getting the logistics of delivery down was one of Starbucks' biggest innovations in 2016. After an announcement in March, the company partnered with Postmates in Seattle to test delivery beginning this month. By October, Starbucks was testing its "Green Apron" delivery, which allows Starbucks locations within office buildings to have baristas hand-deliver beverage orders within the building. "Green Apron" delivery is only available in certain locations in New York City. People joked that Starbucks was going to eliminate one bright spot in every office workers' day: The coffee break. But Starbucks has yet to expand the program.
This April, Starbucks increased its investment in its employees by offering to pay for a full four years of college through Arizona State University's online program. This is an improvement over the company's initial offer to employees, which covered partial tuition for an employee's first two years of college. Thousands of employees have signed up to take advantage of the program.
Howard Schultz for President
Assessing his company's success and his long tenure as CEO, people began calling for Howard Schultz to run for president. In August, Schultz's friends told Fortune "the time is right for someone who's not a political lifer" to be in office. Schultz maintains that he has no plans to run for president.
Howard Schultz for Rich People
Sometimes the very wealthy... forget that not everyone is very wealthy. In August, after a particularly poor stock market close, CEO Howard Schultz asked Starbucks' employees to "be sensitive": "Today's financial market volatility, combined with great political uncertainty both at home and abroad, will undoubtedly have an effect on consumer confidence and perhaps even our customers' attitudes and behavior. Our customers are likely to experience an increased level of anxiety and concern. Please recognize this and ... Let's be very sensitive to the pressures our customers may be feeling..." It didn't take long for people, including Jimmy Kimmel, to criticize Schultz's message as out of touch.
It wasn't all Pumpkin Spice Lattes and stock market highs for Starbucks this year. There were a few missteps, too. In March, Howard Schultz introduced a well-meaning but poorly executed campaign called Race Together. The idea arose as a response to rising racial tensions after the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. But the actions suggested by Schultz came across as too personal and entirely out of tune. While it's true that Americans should talk more about race and race relations, few want to discuss the subject with their Starbucks barista while waiting for their Flat White. And it's one thing to encourage employees to be open to customers' ideas, but another to instruct them to initiate sensitive conversations.
The media was immediately skeptical, and it wasn't long before Race Together became a laughing stock on late night television. The campaign was halted shortly after it launched. Looking back on it, Schultz told Fast Company in June, people "might find it hard to understand where my empathy comes from... I'm not black, I haven't lived a life in which I was racially profiled, and I wasn't discriminated against because of the color of my skin." Starbucks shareholders also admitted that they didn't think to discuss "how it would look for a white billionaire to front a national dialogue on race."
Bagel Balls Backlash
Late in the year, Starbucks locations in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and New York City announced a new menu item: Bagel Balls. Made by NYC-based Bantam Bagels, the balls of chewy dough are filled with flavored cream cheese before being baked. Food obsessives were quick to point out that Bantam's bagel balls look a bit like another NYC original: Momofuku Milk Bar's Bagel Bombs. Earlier this month Momofuku empire builder and chef David Chang took to social media to express his disdain at Starbucks' bagel buns. According to him, the new product looked like a poorly concocted rip-off of Christina Tosi's Bagel Bombs.
Red Cup Controversy
Starbucks fans go bonkers for the coffee giant's red holiday cups every December, but this year Starbucks' graphic design department got called out for their, uh, less-than-festive design. This year's cup was two shades of red — sans snowflakes, snowmen, or star designs, which have graced the cup in year's past. And for some reason conservatives took this new cup design as a direct affront to Christmas and Jesus Christ himself. It got ugly. Donald Trump even called for a boycott on Starbucks. Most people saw the controversy for what it was, though: A whole lot of hot air. Will Starbucks bring back seasonal graphics for holiday 2016? Will Donald Trump win the Republican nomination? Only time will tell.