A huge event took place in coffee back in March. Starbucks purchased the Coffee Equipment Company, gaining ownership of its sole product, the Clover 1s brewer. This news was big because the Clover 1s had been adopted and embraced by specialty coffee shops around the country in a kind of grass-roots, coffee revolution sort of way. These shops had contributed to this machine with their feedback and had used this amazing piece of technology to showcase some of their finest coffees. (For a closer look at what the Clover can do, I highly recommend this Slate article and this piece in Wired).
The sense of betrayal and confusion surrounding the sale was immediate and is somewhat enduring in the blogosphere and on bulletin boards (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8). There were the expected (probably jealous) cries that the owners of the CEC had “sold out” to Starbucks. Most people, however, were happy for (and openly jealous of) the three Standford grads who started the company and their recent big sale even if they also voiced concerns about the future of their own relationship with the Clover.
Some cafes took drastic action. Stumptown, for example, quickly jetisoned its fleet of Clover 1s. Other roasters such as Blue Bottle, with their predilections toward antiquity, probably said I told you so behind everyone else’s backs. (On a few occasions, I’ve even heard a huff of disdain from Blue Bottle baristas at the mention of the Clover.) Most specialty shops that owned Clovers, however, have held onto them, wanting to believe that the promise of continued support advertised on the CEC’s websites wouldn’t get overruled by Starbucks. But while the CEC continues to service existing Clovers, new ones can’t be purchased, undermining Starbucks’ claim in the press release cited above that the purchase was not part of a plan to derail a new threat to its sales.
I’m not completely sure what to think about the purchase. The claim that the Clover is not an ideal machine for Starbucks because the Clover takes skilled baristas to operate is somewhat dubious to me. Starbucks certainly has the potential to centralize the trial and error process that “Clovernet” – a database of best brewing best practices for different coffees – was meant to overcome (by the way, Clovernet was also discontinued by Starbucks). Furthermore, operation is not impossibly complex – nothing a little training and recipe cards couldn’t overcome. But certainly the individually brewed cup requiring barista attention is not obviously consistent with a company that prides itself with ultra automation.
The better argument for why this is a bad idea is that while the Clover can bring out the full potential of the world’s best coffee, Starbucks does not purchase the worlds best coffees. Furthermore, it roasts them poorly and often takes months to get them to the store. If you put bad beans in, there’s not a machine in the world that can get good coffee out.
In response, Starbucks has made some other big changes. You won’t find their typical beans brewed on the Clover. Instead, Starbucks employees will brew only special “small batch” coffees. The selection is limited to five coffees that will rotate and sell out. You can find the list on Starbuck’s Clover website. The oily beans previewed there, and my own previous experience with Starbucks’ lighter, fresher Pike’s Place Roast, however, leaves me suspicious about this endeavor.
But I don’t have to wonder anymore. As of yesterday, Starbucks announced the arrival of the Clover at eight Bay Area locations. You can find some coverage here and here and also on Starbucks own site. So far, Starbucks has rolled this new operation out gradually to a limited selection of cities that started with Seattle, Boston and Portland. It looks like Starbucks is targeting cities where there is already is a market for high end coffee and if the Bay area is any indication, they are steering clear of neighborhoods where there isn’t any immediate competition. So Starbucks, it seems, wants to raise the bar for its own customers as well as steal customers away from neighboring specialty shops. Overall, this Clover/Small Batch thing is a big, bold move that could very easily fall flat on its face.
Stay tuned for Part 2 (a visit to Starbucks)…