Not your Normal Evening at Starbucks in Vancouver

I live in Kitsilano in Vancouver and there’s a Starbucks as close to my house as they can put one without breaking the zoning bylaws.  I am a regular and I call it “my” Starbucks.

True, it is profoundly lame to have such a close identification with a global brand.  I am also known to be seen with my computer often working and meeting with people.  An associate of mine refers to the 3rd Ave and Burrard St. Starbucks as my office.

So it’s no surprise that the area manager, stopped me one day and gave me in invitation to “Coffee & Conversation with Howard Schultz.”  Mr. Schultz is the chairman, president and CEO of Starbucks.  On May 26, 2009 he had a very intimate chat with about 25 people at the Kits Beach Starbucks (Arbutus and Cornwall).  Yes, there are three Starbucks in easy walking distance from my home.

Vancouver is a stunningly safe place for Mr. Schultz to have a meet-and-greet as the two Robson and Thurlow Starbucks are legendary in their strangeness.  (These two coffee shops are at the same intersection, kitty corner from each other.)  No one in Vancouver exhibits surprise that there are so many Starbucks.  Tourists to Vancouver, however, tend to giggle.

As an independent business guy, it was a no-brainer that I wanted to listen to Mr. Schultz as if even a fraction of the success of Starbucks would rub off on me, that would be a good thing.

Initially the store manager talked about his 9 years with Starbucks and did a coffee and snack tasting.  When it came turn for Mr. Schultz, he said little after an introduction and turned the floor over to the guests.  The questions ranged from people not asking questions and saying how much they liked Starbucks to someone wondering why Starbucks did not supply unpasteurized honey.  OK, I don’t want to be mean or anything, but when you get to meet the CEO of Starbucks, do you think you could have prepared a better question than why is the honey pasteurized.  Good Grief.

My question was more global.  I wanted to know what Starbucks was doing about reducing waste.  (I confessed that it took me two years to remember to bring a bag to the grocery store.)  Mr. Schultz said honestly that they are indeed using millions of paper cups per week and that making one from 100% recycled material was extremely challenging.  I was convinced that the issue was in play at head office, but that a solution was not at hand.

One thing I learned was the amount of social responsibility that Starbucks does do.  Whether it’s “enough” I don’t know, but they were doing things like shoreline cleanup that I did not know they and their staff did.  A lady from Children’s Hospital said that the branch on site did a great jog with the kids and were very flexible in hours to help the staff.  

On the fair trade coffee issue, Mr. Schultz was proud that Starbucks was the biggest purchaser of fairly traded coffee in the world.  But due to their size, to meet the demand of the customers, they could not rely on solely fair trade coffee.

It came to me that the relationship between the customer and the corporation is still critical.  If there’s something with any company that bothers you, you have to say so.  On the paper cup issue, the best thing is to bring your own cup (I keep losing and destroying mine, sadly) and write to head office and say, “how’s the 100% recycled cup process going?”

During the session I told Mr. Schultz that Starbucks is in a leadership role and if they said that customers should eat the cups, that wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Mr. Schultz said that they wouldn’t ask customers to do that.  I hope he realized I was kidding.  However, if I ever see unpasteurized honey on the condiment stand I will laugh.

– Robert Ford is the owner of Quokka Systems Consulting

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