Eli Dourado

Starbucks’s slowness policy: a Straussian interpretation

Starbucks has made news this week by ordering its baristas to slow down, to make no more than two drinks at a time. The stated rationale is to ensure quality and reduce errors.

This reasoning does not strike me as very plausible. In my experience, baristas have a low error rate—making coffee is just not that hard. The error rate is surely not zero, but then again, the optimal error rate is not zero. Furthermore, I have not encountered highly variable quality in Starbucks coffee, other than when I showed up today and the service was slower. Slow service is low quality, no?

I am not sure about the true rationale of the policy, but I have a guess. First, the company wants to avoid the association with fast food. Fast food is cheap and low quality. Starbucks coffee, the company wants you to think, is high quality and worth paying for. That is why the company is widely circulating information about this policy. The Wall Street Journal reviewed internal company documents for this story. Starbucks wants you to hear about how high-quality their coffee is.

Second, the company knows that in the long run this policy will be impossible to enforce, and therefore it will not hurt the bottom line. Baristas will slow down for a few months. But, faced with a fixed task, workers have a natural desire to get their work over with quickly so that they can socialize and relax. Some time early next year, baristas will speed up again without the company telling them to, and Starbucks will quietly stop pushing slowness.

The whole thing is an advertisement. It temporarily costs them money through decreased productivity, but it creates news stories and, yes, blog posts. This attention creates positive non-fast-food associations in customers' minds, associations that the company hopes will outlast the policy.

That’s my working hypothesis. Got a better one?