Baristas show the gospel according to Starbucks is alive and well.
In the world of megachurches, megaplexes and megamalls, Starbucks is about as mega as it gets. The Seattle-based coffee company employs more than 125,000 people at more than 12,000 stores, and holds the property rights to approximately 120 patents and trademarks. Starbucks is opening an average of five new stores a day (in some cities, Starbucks stores are located right across the street from each other). While there’s no arguing with Starbucks’ commercial success, critics are quick to cite the company’s slowness to develop fair-trade policies, its negative environmental practices and its poor labor relations as damning evidence of Starbucks’ myopic focus on the bottom line. Labor relations have been especially tough as of late. In 2005 and 2006, Starbucks was plagued by a series of union drives. With a compelling mixture of sincerity and naiveté, Starbucks’ Chairman Howard Schulz responded, “If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.” Starbucks has worked hard to portray itself as a responsible corporate citizen, but many remain unconvinced.
Leonard Sweet, author of the newly published The Gospel According to Starbucks (WaterBrook), sees Starbucks in a very positive light. “I’m a boomer,” he writes. “I live by the motto of ‘speak well of the bridge that carries you across.’” He remembers when the United States was “coffee hell,” a historical condition that predates many of Starbucks’ Gen-X critics. So even if Starbucks was nothing more than a premium-coffee megacorp, Sweet would be glad for the ubiquitous availability of high-quality coffee beverages. That said, The Gospel According to Starbucks is more than a coffee story. The subtitle of Sweet’s book hints at the real, underlying essence of the Starbucks gospel: living with a grande passion. What Starbucks gets (and some church leaders don’t) is passion and meaning. Starbucks is EPIC, an acronym for experiential, participatory, image-rich and connective. Sweet writes, “Anything in business or in the Church that is working in this emerging culture is becoming more EPIC.” If the Church gets EPIC, it will take on “the aroma of God, the taste and feel of God,” and invite others to experience God for themselves.
Throughout The Gospel According to Starbucks, Sweet exegetes the sights and sounds of Starbucks and applies them to the life of faith. He stays away from abstract theories of leadership and management, and draws the reader to objects readily available. For example, a Starbucks cup.
“To bring the EPIC life down to earth, we need look no further than a cup of coffee,” Sweet says. “Coffee is a catalyst for making good things happen. Starbucks took an old, unexciting standby—hot, dark liquid in a cup—and made it an EPIC beverage that millions of people feel they can’t live without. That, in a very few words, captures the contextual intelligence that Christians can gain from studying the Starbucks way of doing business.”
Sweet uses his semiotic study of Starbucks to push the Church beyond a bland, lukewarm approach to ministry. And so, The Gospel According to Starbucks is written with the belief that a richer appreciation of what makes Starbucks successful will “point out the blind spots, weaknesses and failures of the Church.”
If a gospel is gauged by the practice of those who believe it, the baristas at 544 Academy Road in Winnipeg, Manitoba, show the gospel according to Starbucks is alive and well. Take Georgia Barker, for example—her evangelistic fervor is remarkable, even inspiring. For Barker, working at Starbucks isn’t a job; it’s an experience. If that sounds like a corporate line, it isn’t. Starbucks hasn’t indoctrinated Barker. She and her twentysomething colleagues can smell a sell-job a mile away. Barker has embraced the Starbucks experience because Starbucks gives her the opportunity to participate. You can tell how much value she places on participation when people incorrectly refer to her as an employee: “I’m not an employee,” she notes. “I’m a partner.”
The difference is more than semantics. At Starbucks, partnership means participation in the company’s bottom line. So, Barker is a stockholder (as is every barista). It’s playfully called “bean stock” among the green-apron crew, but it’s real shares in the company, traded on the NYSE. Barker is also a recruiter. Starbucks pays her $50 to bring good people on as baristas. If she recruits a district manager, Starbucks pays her $1,000. Perhaps the highest level of participation is found in the “learning journey”—a path of study that raises baristas to the rank of “coffee master” (with the exchange of a green apron for a black one). There are no exams, per se. You earn your black apron by broadening and deepening your Starbucks experience. It’s a participatory process, which includes mastering the aromas and flavors of coffee, embracing the Starbucks foundations (see below) and promoting social responsibility (a recent company initiative). What’s most remarkable about the learning journey is the ripple effect it creates. The passion and knowledge of a coffee master is contagious: stores with black-apron baristas typically see a 10 percent increase in sales.
What inspires the baristas at Academy Road to participate in the Starbucks experience? For Barker, it’s images. Starbucks calls the images “foundations,” which could be just another corporate word for “values,” except Starbucks is an incarnational culture. There are no “foundation statements” posted on the wall. Instead, Barker and her fellow partners are charged with the task of bringing these foundations to life, which is why the foundations are expressed as adjectives describing people rather than nouns describing concepts: “welcoming,” “genuine,” “knowledgeable,” “involved” and “considerate.” This kind of incarnational imaging is highly rewarded at Starbucks, and the rewards are peer-driven. Partners commend each other, in writing, for “legendary” performance. These awards reinforce the images and encourage ongoing participation. The Starbucks experience becomes a way of life. Barker refers to it as a culture.
More important than commendations and awards, however, are the connections this kind of culture creates. Barista Katie McCarthy organized a book drive through the Academy Road Starbucks. She decided to be involved by supporting a local elementary school whose classrooms were grossly undersupplied with reading material. McCarthy went to work collecting books. She put up signs and set up a book-collection basket at the Starbucks store. She organized and invited customers to a celebration event, where every customer who donated a book received a free Starbucks beverage. At the end of the month, McCarthy wrapped up her drive, boxed up her collection and delivered more than 300 books to an overjoyed school administration. Not surprisingly, McCarthy’s partners commended her involvement (and successfully nominated her for the partner-of-the-quarter award).
Starbucks’ sales figures and store openings make the headlines, but Starbucks is revolutionizing the business world because it gets EPIC. Barker, McCarthy and the other baristas at the Academy Road Starbucks in Winnipeg are living out experiences where their participation in Starbucks’ rich images is connecting them to each other, the company and the community. Can the Church get EPIC and end its preoccupation with megaprograms, megabuildings and megacongregations? In The Gospel According to Starbucks, Leonard Sweet cites the example of Maxwell House Coffee, which spent millions of dollars trying to copy Starbucks’ success and failed. “They couldn’t comprehend, much less embrace, the EPIC nature of Starbucks’ culture,” Sweet writes. “They could not transition to more experiential, participatory, image-rich, connective modes of production. They made coffee in vats, vats as big as silos. Starbucks made coffee in little urns, or in single cups.” Bigger isn’t better anymore. The values that Starbucks instills in its employees make them evangelists for the company. “The leading corporate evangelists can help open the eyes of Christians to what we have lost,” Sweet says. By getting EPIC, Leonard Sweet believes the Church might reach more people than ever before.
About the Author: Greg Glatz is the “writer-in-residence” at the Starbucks at 544 Academy Road in Winnipeg, Manitoba.