Starbucks has the market on multiple trips per day virtually cornered. Recently I realized my relationships with the cashiers and baristas there were reaching an awkward comfort level.
I start every day in a Starbucks in suburbia, then I hit a Manhattan Starbucks on 42nd St. for two visits. Afterward, I visit my friends at Starbucks on 23rd St., and there is a fourth visit to a Starbucks unit on 72nd St. or 2nd Ave. I won't give the homeless $5, but I will spend many dollars on the Starbucks experience.
When I walk into my local Starbucks they literally yell, "Hey Eric!" like I'm a returning war hero. When I spilled my coffee at another Starbucks they ran from behind the counter to hand me a new cup, saving me embarrassment. The employee said, "Sorry," like it was her fault, and shifted the blame off of me like a protector.
Starbucks offers more than overpriced coffee – it makes everyone feel special. When I'm in line at Starbucks, I see my employees who make $8 to $9 an hour buying a $5 cup of coffee and that new Chocolate Croissant for $4, and I cringe and think, "That's an hour’s work compensation for them." But while both rich and poor cannot drive the same car, almost everyone can afford the same cup of Starbucks coffee.
There is no division of classes, or haves and have-nots at Starbucks; there is only an equal-opportunity provider of respect and quality experience. It is a brand unlike McDonald’s, which has the connotation of being part of the proletarian experience, and unlike Ruth Chris Steak House, which has price points that make it unattainable to many.
I'm fascinated how each and every Starbucks, while all corporately owned and part of a billion-dollar company, makes you feel that the owner and his wife are there, and that's why they care. I'm humbled that when we all hire in the restaurant business, we have to beg employees to smile; say, “Thank you”; and appear genuine and not phony in their interaction with guests.
As someone who has been in the hospitality and restaurant industries for over 30 years, starting as a busser in high school, I wanted to know why all these employees love their jobs. One day during my travels, I asked 10 Starbucks employees why they like working for Starbucks and appear so happy.
I would have thought that the No. 1 reasons would have been benefits and stock options or growth and opportunity. To my surprise, the No. 1 answer – from eight out of 10 employees – was that they love the product, people and culture.
Starbucks employees deal with lines and stress like all the employees in our industry, but their stress is channeled into motion and productivity, not resentment and aggression. Watch a barista yell names out for 25 guests, specializing their drinks; they don't get flustered. They are professional and work to satisfy all.
In contrast, most restaurant employees get overwhelmed. I have seen servers yell at customers, "I have five tables just seated. I'm doing the best I can." This energy become anxiety and frustration, stressing customers, and costing both the company and the server money.
Part of the experience created by Howard Schultz was the "personality coffee" initiative. Starbucks employees ask for your name when taking your order then call your name when it is ready. You feel somehow that they know you and the coffee was made just for you.
If we can create in our own stores the feeling of goodwill we get when we walk into Starbucks, then we will make our restaurants places that customers will want to return to. Realistically, we can't expect runners to say, "Henny Wing for Tiffany; enjoy." However, what we can expect is, "Enjoy your wings; they look good." Customers want that "Cheers" experience when they come to spend money – "where everybody knows your name." Or at least where they can call it out after they write it on a coffee cup.