When clocks struck 5:30 p.m. in cities across the United States, our customers were gently asked to leave our stores and the doors were locked behind them. Inside, our green-aproned baristas watched a short film our coffee experts had produced in a matter of days back in Seattle and shipped to all 7,100 stores, along with 7,100 DVD players. What our people heard that afternoon was pure and true:
If poured too fast from the spout into a shot glass, like water flowing from a faucet, the espresso's flavor will be weak and the body will be thin. A shot poured too slow means the grind is too fine, and the flavor will be bitter. The perfect shot looks like honey pouring from a spoon. It is dense and tastes caramely sweet.
If the espresso was not good enough, I told everyone at the end of the video, they had my permission to pour it out and begin again.
And then there was the milk.
For our espresso beverages, steaming milk to create a creamy, sweet consistency is crucial. Unfortunately, in the name of efficiency, our company had created some bad habits among our baristas. Not only had we not trained many of them to steam milk correctly—the process requires aerating and heating the milk in just the right fashion—but some had also been steaming large pitchers of milk prior to customers' orders, letting the pitcher sit, and then resteaming the milk as needed. But once steamed, milk begins to break down and lose some of its sweetness. We had to correct these behaviors and return to higher standards.
Speaking to our people via the video, I had no script, just a heartfelt plea. "It is not about the company or about the brand," I said. "It is not about anyone but you. You decide whether or not it is good enough, and you have my complete support and, most importantly, my faith and belief in you. Let's measure our actions by that perfect shot of espresso."
Meanwhile, in city after city, news crews pointed their cameras at our closed stores as reporters interviewed baffled customers. "A World without Starbucks?" asked a headline in The Baltimore Sun. In New York City: "Starbucks Shutdown a Grande Pain for NYers." Online, opinions pro and con streamed in throughout the day, and on television, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, and others covered the closings with an odd sense of wonder, as if it had snowed in summer. Late-night comedians also roasted us. At my home in Seattle, I watched Stephen Colbert's mock news report about his three tortuous hours without a caffeinated drink, which climaxed as he doused himself in the shower with coffee, foam, and cinnamon. I went to sleep laughing for the first time in months.
Not everything went well that day. As predicted, Starbucks lost money. Approximately $6 million. One competitor tried to poach our customers by promoting 99-cent cups of espresso-based beverages. Some critics were brutal, insisting that by admitting we were broken we had forever dented the Starbucks brand. But I was confident that we had done the right thing. How could it be wrong to invest in our people?
In the weeks following the closures, our coffee quality scores went up and stayed there as stories made their way to me, like this one from a barista in Philadelphia:
A gentleman came into my store this morning and told me he would like to try espresso but was afraid it would be too bitter. So I told him that I would pull some perfect shots for him and also make him an Americano. Together we talked about espresso, its origins, and how to enjoy the perfect shot. He enjoyed it immensely and said he would be back for more. . . . I think I now have a customer for life.
That was proof enough for me that we had done the right thing.