The other day I did something very out of character: I went to Starbucks. I walked in, perused the large sprawling menu, and uttered the words, “I’ll have a blonde espresso, please.” I did it for science.
I wanted to know what the big deal was, and why the $27 billion company was trying to offer such a product, which it added to its menus in January. I’m a longtime lover of coffee — I’ve worked in the industry, written extensively about it, and have consumed variations of the drink for as long as I can remember. This “blonde espresso” seemed like a nod toward people like me — a certain specialty product for high-minded and coffee-distinguishing individuals.
The very idea of a blonde espresso is meant as a counterpart to the traditionally dark-roasted flavors Starbucks offered, and also a nod to third-wave coffee’s evangelizing for a “lighter” roast nearly a decade ago. (Starbucks added a blonde roast to its menus back in 2012.) Nowadays, many specialty coffee shops eschew describing a varietal’s roast level. Instead, they all roast on the medium side, which allows a bean’s natural flavor profile to shine through.
So this blonde business seems to be a wink toward coffee lovers; Starbucks saying, “Hey! We can offer something with more complex notes.” Yet advertising can be deceiving, and this drink tasted like short, thin, bitter espresso. It was not some revolutionary experience, opening me up to the possibilities of Starbucks coffee, nor was it the easy-to-drink coffee bombs we’ve come to expect from the café giant. So who was this product for?
Starbucks is large and successful and quite good at what it does. For decades it capitalized on a universal love for coffee and made that into a global fervor. It created products that were, well, easy to drink. Who wouldn’t want a cup of coffee when it was called a Frappuccino and was actually a milkshake? Why not sound fancy and get a caramel macchiato despite that fact that the Starbucks drink — which is essentially sugar, a bit of coffee, and a lot of milk — is not an actual macchiato (which is simply a shot of espresso with about an ounce of foamed milk)? Over the years, it’s introduced many to coffee drinks that were previously unavailable where they lived, bringing espresso, lattes, and cappuccinos to the masses.
This is indeed a very smart business model — make coffee accessible and then commoditize it even further. And Starbucks has made itself available everywhere, on every street corner. The company has more than 13,000 stores in the U.S. alone — one analyst estimates that for each Starbucks location there are an average of 3.6 other Starbucks cafes in a one-mile radius of (which is nuts!).
But as Starbucks has grown over the last few decades, another trend has emerged: specialty coffee. According to the National Coffee Association, in 2010, 40 percent of all cups of coffee drunk in the United States were considered “specialty” — that is, coffee drinks brewed from what consumers perceive as “premium” beans (the survey did not specify its definition of “specialty” or “premium,” allowing each individual consumer’s perception to define the word). In 2017, that “specialty” consumption level rose to 59 percent, meaning a majority of respondents reported drinking premium coffee (of course, much of Starbucks’ offerings might fit within these “specialty” parameters already).
Looking at coffee shops alone, more than 10,000 “specialty” cafés opened in the U.S. between 2005 and 2015. Which is to say that the desire for a finer cup for coffee has increasingly become a more ubiquitous predilection.
It makes sense that Starbucks, already the champion of Coffee for the Masses, would also want in. Its first drastic move was opening its Reserve counters in 2015, which seemed to offer a fancy third-wave option — something Starbucks had never done before. Then, in 2015, it introduced the flat white, which was meant to be a counterpart to its lattes. In specialty coffee terms, a flat white is generally considered an 8-ounce drink consisting of espresso and steamed milk with little — if no — foam. In Starbucks terminology, it’s a vaguely espresso-y drink with warm milk that has a white dot in the center to signify “latte art.” In terms of taste, it offers exactly what most Starbucks latte-like drinks offer, just with a different name and a new aesthetic trick; the Flat White allowed the brand to cash in on a new trend with little meaningful effort.
Still, it seems that these incremental moves worked in some regard, at least on the PR front. The media loves to talk about Reserve’s standalone stores, the first of which debuted in late February in Seattle, as Starbucks’ new strategic push toward third-wave coffee fare, and the coffee giant continues every so often to offer new nods toward fancy cafe culture, including Reserve bars inside existing Starbucks locations. To some, this may seem like the beginning of a whole new Starbucks, one that embraces the coffee connoisseurs it so rudely ignored for decades.
I, however, see an insidious strategy. Instead of going full-blown specialty coffee — which requires both a lot of money (which Starbucks definitely has) and the expertise of knowledgeable baristas — Starbucks is instead creating simulacra of these drinks, in the process, creating a new potential customer who’s really just a cut from the old: People who want to seem discerning in their coffee choices — perhaps even impress a friend with their knowledge of the difference between a latte and flat white — while not being forced to enter the snooty world of specialty coffee. (And, honestly, who can blame them? Craft coffee culture is both expensive and pretentious.)
Starbucks created a world of roasty lactose sugar bombs and is now offering an antidote beside it so patrons can turn their noses up to their fellow customer’s venti Frappuccino. It’s quite brilliant, actually. It’s even upped the ante with the social media fervor surrounding its Instagram-bait drinks like the Unicorn Frappuccino, which, by comparison, somehow make old hats like caramel macchiatos look like a rational coffee order. Starbucks can ostensibly play both sides of the coffee market against each other, profiting all the way.
Nick Cho, the co-founder of San Francisco’s Wrecking Ball Coffee, points to an interesting business comparison: when Toyota introduced Lexus in 1989. “Everyone thought Toyota was nuts,” Cho says. “Who the hell was going to buy a $45,000 Toyota? But in hindsight it was seen as one of the biggest business successes as far as the idea of a spinoff.” This, says Cho, is something Starbucks could go for — it surely has the money to invest in a luxury brand to get that specialty coffee cachet. If Starbucks wanted to, it could make a luxury brand that went for people like me who seek out smaller, finer roasters.
But this isn’t exactly what the coffee giant is doing. Instead, it’s dipping its toe in the high-class coffee waters but never taking the full plunge.
In a lower Manhattan Starbucks Reserve store above a large bustling shopping complex, I decided to test my hypothesis. I walked into what looked like a regular old Starbucks but with darker-colored decor. The items on the menu all looked like normal Starbucks products — and indeed they were. So I asked what I could get that was Reserve. The friendly cashier said I could get a cup of coffee, and told me there were many beans to choose from (although she forgot many of the varietals). So I ordered a cup of “Guatemala,” made by Starbucks’ weird newfangled individual automatic drip machine called the Clover (which does the ghastly task of forcing a machine to make craft pour-over; all baristas do is rake ground beans into the device and then watch it steep!), and paid over $5 for it.
Then I went to the back of the store, turned a slight corner, and saw the “Reserve” part of the cafe hidden from the entrance (on its website, the brand calls such spaces a “more intimate small-lot coffee experience”). It was a full-blown coffee bar with tens of thousands of dollars worth of nice equipment — including a very snazzy and polished espresso machine and dozens of pour-over rigs and syphons — as well as stools to sit near the counter. There was a menu there too, but of course I was unable to see it by the cash register near the entrance.
Behind the counter stood a lone barista, who made a few select drinks — be they individual cups of drip or shots of espresso. Next to him was the rest of the Starbucks machine, churning out dozens of button-operated coffee drinks, which made up most of the drink orders. This barista was eye candy. He was there to make the people inside — mostly middle-aged men in suits — believe this space was a coffee shop of another, more high-end level, and not a regular old Starbucks.
The cup of coffee was fine; it tasted like a $2 cup of good batch brew. But the output and flavor was not what was important to Starbucks. It was the product itself — the veneer of something high-class, which people can hold onto and show as a new badge of honor in comparison to the caramel macchiato ordered beside them.
Which is to say, I don’t think Starbucks really wants me, a self-professed coffee geek. And that’s okay. Though the drink was passable, I think I’ll stick with my local coffee joint.
Cale Weissman is a reporter based in Brooklyn. Glenn Harvey is an illustrator working and living in Toronto.
Editor: Erin DeJesus