That Special Starbucks: Does the place help the people be authentic?

by cv harquail on March 4, 2010

First it was the Siren.
Then it was the Christmas cards.
For a while, it’s been the original artwork by their very own baristas displayed on the walls..

And now, my favorite Starbucks is getting bouquets of flowers.

On a recent visit, there were two big vases of flowers on the counter by the espresso machine. (You can see in this photo what remains of the bouquets.)photo(16).jpg

Who would be bringing their Starbucks flowers? I asked the barista.

The first bouquet was from the UPS man. (He comes in five days a week and knows everyone’s name.) He had two bouquets left over on Valentine’s Day, so the UPS driver brought one bouquet to his mom and the other to his favorite Starbucks.

The second vase of roses was from a customer “who just likes us”, explained the barista.

What is it about this Starbucks that inspires customers to bring them flowers?

In a previous post, you suggested that I simply ask the folks who work at this Starbucks what makes it special. However, I was concerned about triggering “the Hawthorne effect”, where folks do a better job simply because they know they’re being observed. But I broke down and told the barista that I’d written a few posts about this Starbucks and was intrigued by the flowers.

The barista brought me over to the espresso bar to meet the District Manager, and I shared with him my thoughts about what was distinctive about this store. (He especially appreciated my pointing out how there was no dust on the espresso machines here, unlike at most Starbucks.)

After sticking my nose in their business for a little bit, I took my latte to a table in the back, near an outlet, and contemplated what might make this Starbucks special.

Data Gathering: Employee Interaction

The District Manager rejoined the Store Manager at the espresso bar and they resumed their conversation. Their conversation was joined off and on by the baristas, who chatted as they pulled shots and zapped

Watching this relaxed interaction, it occurred to me — maybe it’s the espresso bar itself that helps to create what’s special about this Starbucks?

Look at this photo here. Note that the DM and SM are sitting together, at the bar, facing the baristas’ work area. Notice how the espresso bar is located not in the front of the counter, but around the back and behind the espresso pickup area, across from the sinks, blenders and microwaves.

Even though the managers were having their own conversation, it was easy and natural for baristas to pop in and out of casual conversation with them. At one point, laughter over the baristas reading their horoscopes from a customer’s newspaper caused both me and the writer next to me to look up and smile.

More Data: Customer – Employee Interaction

An hour later the DM was gone and the bar was empty. A customer came in with his computer bag, looking to do some work. Since there were no free tables, he sat down at the espresso bar and pulled out his computer. When a new barista came out from the storeroom and walked behind the bar, the customer looked up from his writing and said hello. They started to chat about his scone and then the customer complimented the barista on her recent weight loss. (What?) Then, an off duty barista sat down with a beverage and chats with another customer. I was starting to see a pattern.

photo(14).jpg Front stage, Backstage, and in between

Up front at the cash register, the baristas are friendly but their priority is to get your order called and your change correct. At the espresso machine the barista looks you in the eye and hands you your drink, but s/he wants to get it to you promptly. Friendly interaction, to be sure, but not much relationship building.

But back here, at the espresso bar, there is no sense of a ‘transaction’ occurring. Instead, customers and baristas are mingling. People are connecting with each other and relating to each other.

The espresso bar area is neither backstage not frontstage in the store. It is a ‘liminal’ area, where boundaries are blurred.

The espresso bar is not “public space” like the cash register area, and it is not “private space” like the tables and chairs. It’s not a commercial or transactional place. Instead, at the bar the employee-customer interaction is informal, spontaneous, and interpersonal.

I haven’t seen anything like that at the other 3 Starbucks (whch have the same DM, by the way). There, they are friendly, but lacking in that extra je ne sais quoi.

I’ve noted before that it’s the people who make the place authentic. But, in places were all of the people are alike, maybe it is the place itself that triggers another level of authenticity? All of these Starbucks have friendly baristas. But perhaps there is something unique to this place that helps bring out the authentic in the people?

Could it be something as simple as the espresso bar? Do you think that this little, physical tweak that lets customers and employees interact in non-commercial ways is what makes it possible for the employees — and customers– to be more authentic, and to create something ‘special’?

What’s your sense of this?

See also:
What’s going on at my favorite Starbucks?
Can a Starbucks touch your soul?
The People Make the Place Authentic


Melody March 4, 2010 at 10:06 am

This is a great article on what makes a store work, and how the store design affects the team. I’ve seen a few other examples where it seems like the store design affects the environment but you’ve captured it perfectly here! Thanks!
.-= Melody´s last blog ..The Dark Cherry has arrived at Starbucks =-.

Jennifer Johnston Canfield March 4, 2010 at 10:54 am

Your observations and questions about the impact of space on experience are right on. When I was an installation artist, I played around with degrees of light and shadow, color warmth or coolness, density and scarcity, temperature, smell, and more attributes because they powerfully affect an individual’s experience of time and place. Now I use the same insights when assessing businesses because space plays a major role in customer experience.

I recently conducted an operational analysis of Peet’s Coffee in Harvard Square. They have a cold, cramped, and inefficient space. They also have high staff turnover and not-so-great customer service. The two are connected, no doubt. A few changes, and it would be a great site and a better business.

A great example of this “turnaround” can be experienced at the Harvard Square Starbucks in the Garage. They just put in these amazing shared tables and booths. I passed the booths one day and went back two days later because I just had to sit in them. They are so inviting. Amazing. I hadn’t patronized that coffee shop in years, but a redesign helped regain my business. Kudos, Starbucks!

cv harquail March 4, 2010 at 11:31 am

Hi Melody- I have another data point coming up, too! I do think that the different layout (along with other factors like strip mall vs. downtown location) is one of the things that tips this particular starbucks over into new territory.

Jennifer, The Starbucks in the Garage sounds like a great natural experiment … would have been nice to collect some before & after data!
Retail designers are (obviously) hip to all of these physical details, and they also consider customer ‘flow’, but I am not sure to what degree they think about who the employees are and how the employees might want to interact w/ customers… I wonder if the store designers consider ‘informal customer-employee interaction’ as part of the SB design process. Melody might know. ?
Fun to go from an artist background into an MBA program 🙂
Thanks both of you for sharing your insights.

Paul Kiser March 4, 2010 at 7:10 pm

I do find it interesting that certain Starbucks have something more. I have a ‘home’ Starbucks that I use about 60% of the time. I know the manager and about half of the staff by name and we have casual conversation all the time. However, in other Starbucks (and I visit a lot of them) the focus is at the cash register and at the order bar. I think you can train people to be more engaged with their clients, but it really is better when done by example.

cv harquail March 4, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Paul, thanks for sharing your experience (and letting me know I’m not the only person who cheats on her ‘home’ Starbucks). Funny, we are the same customer, and it’s the same ‘company’, but the experience at some spots is just better.
Hooray to those employees who make a difference!

Jim Meredith March 5, 2010 at 8:42 am

Your post does a great job in identifying how even small design (planning) decisions affect the behaviors of people and the culture of a place. Most importantly, you make a good case that the authenticity of interest in the customer experience expressed in the design will also resonate through to authenticity in the behaviors of people and staff. The comparison, uncovering an entirely different set of behaviors in the same people but at different stores, seems to make a very good case about the role of design.

In research we’ve been part of in the past, it has been surprising to uncover and understand the tremendous cost to the economy of failing to plan and design thoughtfully (authentically). The concept of the influence of space on the performance of people seems well accepted in other domains but remains resisted in the world of work. (

To stay on the Starbucks theme, my own nearby touchpoint, a place authentic in its simplicity and spareness, provided a great place for a regular clientele to meet and greet both among themselves as well as in their invitations to others to join them there for business or socialization. Success meant, of course, remodeling. The store inverted its space profile and, in the new plan, gave 2/3 of the store over to back of counter operations. The customer experience is now no longer to gather (no place for it) but only to order. A drive-in window may have been the “authentic” response.

cv harquail March 5, 2010 at 9:17 am

Hi Jim,
Like you, I’m a big believer in the power of the little things, and in the power of the material and spatial in shaping the social. My own research on the relation of place and space to org identity has only recently started getting any traction– it’s as though the whole field of org scholars abandoned ‘place’ to open space office designers and cube farmers. I have been frustrated trying to find ‘scientific’ empirical demonstrations of design on behavior, despite how long we have known how much it matters.
I am so glad you commented, and glad to be able to follow the link to your firm’s site– your description of what you do and why is so compelling that I have to past a snippet here to flag to readers that they have to go check you all out!

“We are deeply interested in activating the power of the “white space”–the places and spaces between intention and interaction.

Our purpose is to uncover and make extraordinary connections that enhance the value of investments in architecture, workplace, people and brand.”

Christine Livingston March 8, 2010 at 6:58 am

Hi CV,

When I lived in London (which I did till October last year) I too had a “home” Starbucks, which was in Wimbledon. For years I’d be in there pretty much once a day and the experience was amazing. What made the difference, I think, was the store manager, who was very customer focused and would come out from behind the counter regularly to chat with people in the store. This encouraged the baristas to do the same. I knew the baristas by name and they me, and they’d be lining up my grande soya latte as they saw me walk in the door, and asking me whether I wanted a granola bar today or not. It was awesome. But then the manager changed and a new guy came. He was more reticent. Suddenly the place felt more shabby, the dirty cups etc were cleared away less often and the atmosphere began to suffer. A lot of the staff left and they clearly began to have staffing problems. I began not to enjoy it and indeed, never mind cheating, I quit Starbucks and joined the rank of Costa lovers.

I can see the store layout makes a difference, but to me store leadership is vital.

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