How automation helped Starbucks become the world’s largest coffee chain
Starbucks is the largest coffee chain in the world by some margin, and its success has been chalked down to many things. Jenna Gottlieb speaks with automation expert Casey Chartier-Vignapiano about how Starbucks has harnessed tech to grow to such lofty heights.
There are countless coffee shops around the world, ranging from multinational chains to local mom-and-pop cafés on neighbourhood street corners. More than ever, consumers are spoiled for choice, having instant access to whichever kind of coffee they prefer.
Coffee has become a lifestyle product that appeals to an incredibly diverse market, and there’s certainly plenty of variety out there. However, above all else, there’s Starbucks.
Founded as a humble coffee bean store in Seattle in 1971, the brand has since come to dominate the global coffee chain market, expanding to more than 30,000 retail locations worldwide.
Few chains have been as dominating a force. Its products – which include roasted coffee, coffee capsules, and coffee additives – can now be found in-store, on shelves, and online in over 80 countries.
The first shop outside the US was opened in Vancouver, Canada, in 1987 before international expansion really took off in the 1990s as the chain opened shops in Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and the UK.
This growth didn’t happen by chance. Under deliberate, expansionist policies, Starbucks identified new ways to sell coffee to global consumers. In the years since, the company has positioned itself at the forefront of fair trade coffee, corporate social responsibility, and the overall efficiency and profitability of the coffee chain business model.
Arguably, an integral factor in this efficiency has been the company’s ability to expand with ease.
Dunkin’ and McDonald’s are among Starbucks’ most significant competitors, but both trail Starbucks in market share. However, all three share automation in common, using it to scale up business operations around the world.
By definition, automation is the method of making a system, apparatus, or process operate automatically – or with little-to-no human intervention. So, what examples of automation can be seen in Starbucks’ global system?
The vast potential of automation
According to Spirit Tea’s Casey Chartier-Vignapiano, automation can be applied to all aspects of a café business that “involve a chain of tasks”.
“Drink creation will be the most obvious answer, but we can take an out-of-the-box approach and consider touchless payment like Apple Pay and point-of-sale (POS) kiosks with touchless payment integrations,” she explains.
Within the café setting, Starbucks has introduced superautomatic espresso machines that streamline barista workflow and allow more drinks to be prepared in a shorter space of time. This has several advantages for a café.
Starbucks is known for its extravagant drink options, including a range of additions such as syrups, spice blends, and toppings. Superautomatic coffee machines enable baristas to focus on more hands-on, technical aspects of drink preparation while the machine consistently grinds, doses, and brews coffee.
“The superautomatic machine can adjust things like grind to keep your recipe right where it needs to be over time,” Casey explains. “It’s also able to handle multiple drink recipes, which your staff can have control over and be able to feel connected to the cafe.”
Automation reduces the need to find and train new staff, but it doesn’t do so at the expense of quality, consistency, or the value of a human touch. This makes it that much easier to set up shop in any part of the world.
“It allows management to focus less on rigorous coffee training and hire those without much experience to work the bar,” Casey explains. “When you introduce automation into the mix, you can produce a drink in under a minute every time, and the milk, amount of shots, temperature, and everything else will be what the customer wants.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many “horeca” businesses were forced to adopt drive-through setups, delivery services, and other technology-driven techniques to keep business going. Superautomatic coffee machines have allowed this to be both possible and profitable.
“One will find that a superautomatic will take care of nearly all the aspects of drink building without error while the barista prepares any food, iced teas, and more,” Casey elaborates. “The workflow here makes more sense.”
Delivery apps are another trend gaining traction. Effectively, they automate the barista-customer interaction.
“It’s great for increasing your transactions and average order value,” she says. “I think coffee shops should take the integration of pick-up and delivery apps seriously.”
In fact, it seems Starbucks is already ahead of the curve. According to research by eMarketer, in 2018, the Starbucks app was the most popular in-person mobile payment method overall, with 23 million people in the US using the app to make purchases.
What role will automation play in Starbucks’ future plans?
Modern consumers are more concerned than ever with their own wellbeing and that of the planet. As such, they’re demanding the same of their preferred businesses.
Starbucks claims to address these concerns through the use of fair trade coffee, carbon offsetting, and the adoption of healthier products that are also better for the environment, like plant-based milks.
Modern superautomatic espresso machines like the Carimali Silverace can produce high-quality, consistent milk froth using plant-based milks. Furthermore, it features motion-sensor technology that drastically reduces energy consumption.
Other technologies like induction heating are creating new possibilities for coffee shops that are trying to be as energy-efficient as possible.
If Starbucks intends to continue scaling up, automation will be an essential part of that process. By adopting these technologies, the company can simultaneously address consumer demands and ensure that its business remains competitive in an increasingly sustainable marketplace.
Our world is also becoming more focused on inclusivity. Automation allows people with mobility issues and other disabilities to work in coffee – an environment that is typically not disability-friendly.
“Much of espresso drink creation involves repetitive movements and tension with the hands,” Casey says. “This is not something that every barista can do.”
Some modern superautomatic espresso machines can be controlled from large touch screen interfaces, allowing those with mobility issues to effectively work in a café environment.
Furthermore, the role of automation at Starbucks and other coffee businesses will likely be driven by innovation. Coffee businesses need to stay abreast of industry trends, and Starbucks has, historically, been a trendsetter.