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How tech shaped Starbucks

howard behar fare 2015

“What you see in Starbucks is constant innovation,” said Howard Behar at this year’s FARE Conference held in Nashville, Tenn., in June. During the cross-channel summit, hosted by Restaurant Business’ parent company, Winsight, the former president of Starbucks Coffee Company North America and founding president of Starbucks Coffee International gave operators a peek inside Starbucks’ ongoing pursuit of what’s next. “It’s never ending ... we were constantly trying things, and they still try things today.”

Behar is among the speakers at the upcoming FSTEC Conference, a technology-focused event, also from Winsight. If there’s any doubt that tech touches all parts of an operation, not just IT, Behar’s recount of its impact on Starbucks during his tenure is a convincing case study.

Tech can be the solution …

“We almost gave up on food at one time, because we couldn’t get it right,” said Behar at FARE. But when the breakfast-sandwich trend hit, a corporate staffer suggested warming ovens instead of the handmade route the chain previously tried. “Those warming ovens changed the entire business,” he said. “During the downturn, when sales were [slipping], the one bright spot that we had were those breakfast sandwiches.”

... But sometimes you don’t need it

Japan was Starbucks’ first international market, in part because of its strong coffee culture. But there was one point of contention between Behar and CEO Howard Schultz during the build-out of that initial store: smoking. “I must’ve spent a quarter of a million dollars putting in air-filtration systems,” said Behar. “We only did it in one store and realized we didn’t need it,” he said. Today, all stores across the brand are nonsmoking.

Still, it always is worth exploring

During a trip to Israel in 1990, Behar’s host had a chip-enabled card that he waved in front of a reader to get access to a military base and pay for food purchased there. Behar got one of the cards and brought it back to Starbucks’ to see if they could create a similar program. It took 15 years, said Behar, but eventually became Starbucks’ (pre-app) reloadable loyalty/gift card.

Imperfection is part of the process. “We made mistakes, and it cost lots of money. I’d like to have the millions of dollars we spent on computer programs that didn’t work,” he said. 

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