What technology takes
Don't let optimization kill the vibe
I was running errands during a family visit to the midwest this summer when I placed a Starbucks mobile order. It took less than a minute and about five taps to send my order: a tall blonde roast with a splash of oat milk. Shortly after, the trouble started. My order wasn’t on the pickup shelf at the first store I went to. I hustled across the street to the other Starbucks, the one inside a Target. It wasn’t there, either. By the time I collected my coffee from one of seven stores in the area, it was cold.
This experience was a far cry from the Starbucks of my youth, which existed only in big cities and, eventually, inside a local Barnes & Noble, where I’d sip caramel macchiatos and leaf through magazines for hours before returning them to the shelves. As Starbucks expanded in the ‘90s, it looked to create a “third place” for patrons; a comfortable and predictable place to go that wasn’t work and wasn’t home. It was scaling Central Perk culture; art, music, friends, coffee.
That Starbucks is gone. The new Starbucks, as profiled in a recent Fast Company piece, has sacrificed its vibe for scale; it’s individual barista relationships with mobile ordering, drive-thrus, pick-up shelves, and loyalty points. It’s the reason why I got lost in a sea of strip-mall Starbucks in Kansas City and it’s not necessarily a good change. The piece is even titled, “What happened to Starbucks? How a progressive company lost its way.”
The short answer to Fast Company’s title question is the coffee giant’s mobile app, held up as a marker of success and potential for metrics like mobile ordering and loyalty programs. (The longer answer involves technology and how it’s changed everything about Starbucks, from what’s expected of employees to how customers interact with them. “Consumers no longer face the barista’s glare when ordering a 14-ingredient TikTok-famous drink; the Starbucks app judges them not,” it reads.)
The app might not judge, but it does show up: The Starbucks app has, shockingly, handled more mobile payments than Apple Pay or Google Pay. It also captures valuable customer data and offers a clean way to chart growth. I imagine the company’s leadership is happy to trade mid-aughts third-place vibes for quantifiable business (and stock price) growth.
A few weeks ago,
Applebee’s announced it would add drive-thru pickup windows to 15 of its 1,000-plus stores before the end of the year. Diners order ahead on the website or mobile app — again, a valuable way to capture all that customer data and encourage diners to interact directly with the brand instead of a third party like DoorDash — and pick up from the convenience of their cars. Applebee’s may not be the experiential dining room of choice for a certain generation, but its recent success in digital and delivery — orders are up 27 percent over the past few years — shows the brand still sees a sizable market outside its dining rooms. There’s real value in capturing both.
Of course, it’s one thing when the tech works. It’s another when its outsized promise causes disruption… for disruption’s sake. Take CloudKitchens, for example, the ghost-kitchen-slash-real-estate startup from Uber founder Travis Kalanick. The company’s troubles, including high staff turnover and challenging neighborhood relationships at its facilities, are well-documented. Then there’s this: according to recent reporting by Insider, one former Cloud Kitchens salesperson said 90 percent of his customers failed within the first 90 days of operation.
Insider uses this as one point to validate its thesis that what works in technology doesn’t necessarily apply to restaurants. As I’ve said, salad doesn’t scale like software. I coined that phrase — my actual favorite at the moment — shortly after salad chain Sweetgreen filed for its IPO. The chain, I argued, missed a real opportunity to address the differences between building a technology business and building a restaurant business: namely, speed and scale.
Case in point: