Swiping a page from Starbucks’ magic book

Consider this a petition to change forever the scientific research policies of the United States, if not the United Nations. Space exploration, nanotechnology, cold fusion, brain mapping—forget all those. Every dollar and erg of energy should be plowed into understanding how Starbucks does it.

Imagine the breakthrough. With that power of innovation in harness, stubborn social and political problems would be solved at dinner parties. Parents and teenagers would chuckle about past generations’ inability to resolve their differences. Parents in other lands would put their children to bed with stories of the swashbuckling thinkers who forged opportunity by refusing to take the usual approach to the same old things, be it coffee or employee benefits.

And the impact on the restaurant industry? Can we say, “Level playing field?” Right now it’s not one; whatever mojo Starbucks stirs into its mochaccino has given it the sort of edge that A-Rod would swap another baseball season to wield.

Restaurateurs will likely scare their grandchildren on stormy Halloweens with tales of business conditions in 2013. Those 12 months were Starbucks’ best year ever.

Revered operations like Darden, Brinker, Ruby Tuesday and Yum! stuck a licked finger into the business winds and concluded their best bet was to divest brands for the sake of focus. Starbucks bulked up to four concepts, including Teavana, which is virtually the Pepsi to its own Coke in the field of hot beverage choices.

Disney’s pixie dust is just confetti with a story behind it. Starbucks has synthesized the real thing. Steve Jobs would have regarded the operation’s leadership as kindred spirits.

Part of it is no doubt the daring of CEO Howard Schultz, who shared his manifesto with the world when he returned to the helm in 2008. It was spelled out in a widely leaked memo that went to every employee: The specialness of Starbucks, the need to recapture its innovative spirit and, most important, how to do it. Doug Brooks, then-CEO of Brinker International, told me he read it to his own executive team for inspiration.

But that doesn’t explain it all. So what continuing-ed. course at Hogwarts had a vanload of Starbucks executives enrolled? Or did the company pull a Robert Johnson and trade its soul for mastery?

There’s no eye of newt in the company’s success potion. It’s a matter of informed daring, continual reinvention, a healthy skepticism of tradition and inertia and an understanding of customers who’ve had their fill of paint-by-numbers experiences.

The chain isn’t flawless. Need we mention the lifestyle e-commerce website that Schultz attempted to launch not long after the dawn of online shopping? Consumers just didn’t swallow, or care, that they could find the sort of lamp there that fit the personality of a Starbucks coffee drinker.

Still, there’s an undeniable uniqueness to Starbucks that keeps it at the forefront, business- and innovation-wise. We’re proud to peek behind the curtain (see Page 40), courtesy of Dina Berta, a one-time newspaper reporter and the former human resources editor of Nation’s Restaurant News. I won’t spoil the read for you, but suffice it to say there’s a reason we chose someone of her ilk to delve into Starbucks’ strategy.

As always, we welcome your input. And don’t hesitate to let us know what other operations you’d like us to x-ray.


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