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How a fired advertising executive became a Starbucks waiter and now thanks the coffee chain for saving his life.

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Apologies to the reader for the small number of posts here this week. I was at the University of Oklahoma for a math visit from Tuesday to Friday.

It was a fruitful visit. I gave a couple of talks and discussed a lot of number theory. In many ways the whole thing, especially the math discussion, was reminiscent of my Olympiad days when we would think about math problems all the time, sometimes in groups, sometimes individually and explain our bright ideas to each other with a particular kind of passion that few people ever experience. The trouble with research is that everything is so specialized that it is hard to find people to talk to who really understand your stuff. So the last few days were almost from another planet — waking up at 8 AM, going over to Starbucks to meet the other two, and mathiness for the rest of the day. And did I mention that I was put up in a luxury suite and everything I ate or drank (including every cup of coffee) during my stay was paid for by them?

I am back now, so blogging should resume. Cannot promise a flood of posts though. Math has a way of reminding you of its superior status from time to time.

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Erm..don’t panic, it is not long-term! All Starbucks stores across the country will be closed for three hours this evening to conduct an in-store education and training program for their employees.

This is how Howard Schultz (founder, chairman and CEO of Starbucks) puts it.

We will close all of our U.S. company-operated stores to teach, educate and share our love of coffee, and the art of espresso. And in doing so, we will begin to elevate the Starbucks Experience for our customers. We are passionate about our coffee. And we will revisit our standards of quality that are the foundation for the trust that our customers have in our coffee and in all of us.

While the above quote is undeniably cheesy, Schultz, it seems, is rather passionate about the cafe experience. Having single-handedly made Americans addicted to coffee, he has nevertheless often been quoted lamenting that Starbucks has lost some of its charm as it has expanded into the behemoth that it is today.

…one of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store. Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee. In fact, I am not sure people today even know we are roasting coffee. You certainly can’t get the message from being in our stores.

Of course, cynics will deride this as a shameless attempt to gain free publicity. While I can’t read Schultz’s mind, there are plenty of blogs out there that tell you how horible Starbucks is, so let me try and be a bit different.

I have always found it amusing how fashionable Starbucks-bashing is. There seem to be two specific accusations (beyond the general rant about capitalism, consumerism, elitism and other horrible “isms”) that people love to make.

One, Starbucks makes terrible coffee and offers a bad cafe experience.

Tastes are of course subjective and so I will only speak for myself. I find the Starbucks experience and their coffee pretty good. In fact, it is always my first choice when I want to go to a cafe to get some work done. I have tried other coffee shops, including chains like Peet’s, Seattles Best and Coffee Bean and nowhere have I found the level of comfort that I get from my neighbourhood Starbucks. In their seating arrangements, lighting, choice of music, balance between privacy and openness … Starbucks gets it right for me.

Two, Starbucks is an evil imperialist monster that ill-treats its workers and runs the local coffee shops out of business.

This is symptomatic of a wider mistrust that people have of the capitalist system, borne out of a basic misunderstanding of how such things work. For the record though, Starbucks treats its workers better than many other chains. It offers better wages and it gives health insurance, not to mention other benefits. As for local independent coffee shops, they, contrary to the claim above, thrive on the existence of Starbucks because it benefits them and drives up their business.

Of course none of this justifies how unenthusing Starbucks’ baked goods range is!

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