Bookshelf: Coffee, anyone?

The story of Starbucks' huge commercial success is hidden amid a morass of vapid anecdote and turgid detail.

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

As they say in the US, we've read this book so you don't have to. And in this case, we're doing you a big favour. The Starbucks Experience was clearly written with the full cooperation of its subject, but even so I don't think I have ever read anything quite so fawning. Not even Daily Mail editorial leaders on the day that victory was declared by Britain in the Falklands War come close. No, this book reads like a love letter from a 14-year-old girl to the lead singer of a boy band.

I'd hoped for something better. The dust jacket boasts that "for the first time an outsider has been given full access to the Starbucks experience". But, as soon becomes clear, Joseph A Michelli, PhD, is about as much of an outsider as the editor of Pravda under Brezhnev. He uses his 'full access' to ask all the difficult questions, such as: "What's it like to be successful - and fantastic too?" and "No, really, why are you so great?", although curiously for all his much-vaunted 'in', many of his quotes from the top brass come secondhand from online publications.

Michelli kicks off by telling us that before our towns and cities were Starbucked, pretty much all coffee was awful and those who served it were rude and surly. Luckily, St Arbucks was there to rescue us from this percolated purgatory and has ministered abundantly to the world ever since with the very finest latte money can buy. Here, I found myself wondering if the author had ever visited any other sort of coffee shop. If he had been to, say, a decent independent outfit, it might have crossed his mind that as Starbucks is the biggest coffee chain in the world, so KFC is the biggest chicken chain in the world. It might also explain why, although the stores were supposedly inspired by Milanese coffee bars, there is not a single Starbucks in Italy, the most coffee-conscious nation on earth.

But leaving aside the absence of critical thought, there's plenty else to dislike. The book is padded with filler. We learn that Starbucks says people should be welcoming and just in case we don't understand the concept of a welcome, the author proceeds to define it over the next two pages. It is endlessly repetitive: "the team came up with a system that not only allowed for better customer service that made the workplace more fun" and, two sentences later, "this simple change not only evoked a spirit of fun, it increased the speed of service". Asinine rhetorical questions are posed along the lines of: "Who doesn't like a toffee nut latte?" Well, me for one. And then there's the plodding, mechanical prose. "Details converge into a felt sense about the business" runs one especially snappy sub-header. Who writes this stuff? Clearly, someone who is barely on nodding terms with their own language.

But, what is far, far worse than any of this is the endless parade of Hallmark homilies. To give him his due, Michelli has spent a great deal of time talking to Starbucks' ground staff. Normally, I'd applaud this. But, as they say, a bore is a man who tells you everything. The vast bulk of the book is made up of these little stories and no detail is too trivial, no episode too banal, no occurrence too picayune to escape inclusion.

After a while, the only way to keep going is to make a game of it - and challenge yourself to find the worst example of a sycophantic anecdote. I started with "If it is possible to make a $4 transaction look joyful, they accomplished it" on the grounds that it made the baristas in question sound like they were working a hostess bar in Manila. But they were beaten hands down by Erica from Sacramento, who "realised the important role Starbucks played in her life 'when my son's first words were 'Mommy, Starbucks'". Really, I'm not making this up.

Sadly, this is the high-water mark of laugh-out-loud awfulness, but as you stumble on towards the limp conclusion, you find yourself asking whether, with all this social work and do-gooding, the staff ever make any coffee and that perhaps they should send a team of baristas to mediate in the Middle East. This is a shame because - whatever you think of its coffee - Starbucks has been a huge commercial success and there is doubtless plenty of useful stuff to be learned. The problem is that anything of interest in this book is buried in a morass of extraneous detail and vapid anecdote.

I'd be interested to see what the company thinks of Michelli's efforts. My feeling is that, like the boy band singer on the receiving end of the love letter, they'd view it as flattering and sweet, but ultimately rather embarrassing.

The Starbucks Experience, Joseph A Michelli, McGraw-Hill, $21.95, ISBN: 0-07147-784-5.

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