Rebrewing Starbucks

Starbucks, you may have heard, is rebrewing itself.

In February, the caffeinated leviathan shuttered all 7,100 American outlets for three hours to retrain employees, a gimmick met with equal parts ridicule and suspicion. If customers hadn’t gathered something was wrong, they knew now. The stock is down 40 percent from last year.

Blog Image 319842 - Heller

Today, “Starbucks introduces coffee,” the company proclaims, offering free 12-ounce cups of its new Pike Place Roast, every Wednesday through May 28.

When a company has to reintroduce its core business, it’s time to question the grounds. Founder Howard Schultz is on his 12th Transformation Agenda Communication, as if he were the General Petraeus of java.

What’s gone wrong with Starbucks is indicative of a consumer base that doesn’t want what it’s peddling.

In a — dare we use the word? — recession, the stores are too expensive, too impersonal and unrelated to the sense of community that drove sales in the first place. They’ve become a pricey version of Dunkin’ Donuts in muted colors, a cafeteria masquerading as an intimate place.

For the sake of investigative drinking, I tried the coffee, a medium roast, and it’s a big improvement. As Inquirer restaurant reviewer Craig LaBan, like me a Starbucks drinker only by default, surmised on his webchat: “You can actually TASTE coffee flavors swirling on the first sip.”

Still, Philadelphia is home to the exquisite La Colombe, worth every penny of the $14 pound bag that we’ve learned to stretch for a couple weeks or more.

Consumers don’t crave big any more. They want an intimate connection with the community. As good coffee took over the country, home-brewed cafes increased, owned and operated by area residents, each with a distinct identity, less particleboard, more bulletin boards supporting local endeavors.