The Largest Coffee Company in the World was Built One Cup at a Time

If you live in the city, throw a stone and you’ll find a cafe — the kind that serves coffee that’s been pulled through freshly-ground beans in stainless steel. Some of these cafes serve decent lattes and cappuccinos and americanos, while others serve swill that’s trying to pass off as those. 

Ask any young urban professional and you’ll learn that Starbucks falls into the latter category. “If you want a frappuccino, you’re in the wrong cafe,” implies the writing on the wall in one of the cafes I sometimes visit (only with friends).

But what most young people now might not know, is that when it was first founded, Starbucks’ pride was its pursuit of high quality coffee and later, high quality coffee products.

In Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and co-writer Doris Yang tell the story of how Starbucks Coffee Company began “as a single store on Seattle’s waterfront” and eventually grew into a conglomerate

The original Starbucks was named "Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice”, was 10 years old and had only four small retail stores — not cafes — when it was first discovered by Schultz. 

At the time, he was working for a Swedish company selling houseware and he thought it was interesting that this little company had been placing unusually large orders for a drip coffeemaker.   

He went to check them out, sampled their coffee and fell in love.

At the time, coffee in the United States was sold in cans that contained cheap and low quality ground beans that would be left for months on supermarket shelves before consumer use.   

Starbucks, on the other hand, sold high quality, whole Arabica beans that they roasted themselves. 

Schultz joined the Starbucks team soon after as the Director of Marketing and during a trip to Italy, he discovered espresso and all the other espresso beverages like latte, cappuccino and americano (which has a similar strength to but different flavour from drip coffee). 

Upon his return, he convinced the Starbucks owners to allow him a small portion of the retail store to serve as a cafe, where customers could stop and drink these beverages. 

However, he was unable to do this company-wide as the owners wanted to maintain their business as retail, rather than develop a restaurant business. Frustrated, he left to start up his own cafe venture — Il Giornale.   

Il Giornale’s first store opened in 1986 and two years later, the original Starbucks owners (who wanted to focus on another business) sold Starbucks to Il Giornale for $3.8mil. Schulz renamed Il Giornale to Starbucks and the rest, we say, is history.   

Starbucks began expanding aggressively nationwide and went public in 1992. Later, they continued to innovate on other products and created bottled coffee beverages, instant coffee, coffee ice cream and more. 

Pour Your Heart into It details the ups and downs of the business, with Schultz even sharing some of his personal struggles, lessons he learned and insights into some of the decisions he made as CEO of Starbucks. 

Since the book was published in 1992, it doesn’t touch on Starbucks international expansion (which began with Japan and Singapore in 1996) but I enjoyed almost all of it. 

As a coffee lover and a business owner, I could identify with Schultz’s love for coffee and gained a greater understanding of the grind (accidental pun) involved in running a business. 

For the most part, I could feel passion wafting out of the book pages, especially when Schultz describes how the company ensured that anyone walking into any of its cafes would be greeted with the smell of deliciously roasted coffee and feel a sense of welcome. 

However, the final chapter was a let-down as it read more like a report on corporate responsibility, rather than an actual story.   

But it’s definitely one of the more engaging business books I’ve read, likely because it is also a personal story, and is definitely a book that I would keep on my shelves and flip through again for inspiration. 

Now knowing more about its origins, I think it’s ironic that in some countries, Starbucks is compared to swill, which it once replaced. One reason I can think of for this is the influence of the coffee culture from Australia, which features much stronger flavoured coffee.   

While I think that sometimes, Starbucks cafes (in Malaysia) doesn’t always provide the kind of flavours that artisanal cafes might provide, there’s still a sense of comfort in every store.     

As someone who often works out of cafes, Starbucks is very often my cafe of choice. The baristas are always friendly and if you’re ever unsure about what beverage to order, you never get the feeling that they’re secretly rolling their eyes and tapping their sneakers.

*Jeannette also writes at http://jeannettegoon.com/