On a recent coffee run in the Bay Area, I learned not all Starbucks stores are created equal.
Most stores make you want to duck in and duck out, with their fluorescent lighting, lack of comfort seating, and swarms of cranky, under-caffeinated customers. A Reserve bar is different.
Last year, the big-box coffee chain announced an expansion of its premium brand, Reserve, with 1,000 new coffee bar locations across the US in 2017. The bars turn the ritual of grabbing a cup of coffee into an experience. Baristas prepare small-batch coffee using a variety of uncommon methods, like siphon brewing. They also sell coffee flights and cold-brew floats.
I visited a Starbucks Reserve bar in Redwood City, California, an outpost of Silicon Valley. Here’s what it was like — and what it cost me.
Starbucks has been pouring money into the expansion as it bucks competition from upscale coffee brands like Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia. It wants to show it's no one-trick pony.
When you first walk in, a few things stand out. The place is huge, with customers gathered around long communal tables and a low, wood-clad bar where you can watch baristas work.
I snatched up a menu. It didn't list the typical fare like Frappuccinos, smoothies, and other sugary concoctions masquerading as coffee. Instead, it included short descriptions of the premium, small-batch coffees available and the different brewing methods you could try.
It's not the kind of thing you grab on the go. A barista took all of 10 minutes preparing my order. She plated six sample cups and cards that detail the origins of the beans.
We chatted while she worked behind the counter -- something I wouldn't normally do.
The barista relocated from a Starbucks store in nearby Woodside, California, to the Reserve bar about three months ago. It's a highly coveted place to work for Starbucks employees.
'I wanted to work here since it opened,' the barista told me.
The company invests a significant number of hours in training baristas at Reserve locations. They learn to use the more uncommon brewing equipment and participate in regular tastings to experience the new Reserve coffees, which rotate through the menu every three months.
'I feel like a real barista,' she said. 'It's like working at a winery. It's so legitimate.'
She carried the tray around the bar to where I was seated, 'in order to avoid casualties,' and delivered a glass of sparkling water to 'cleanse the palate' between tastings.
My personal favourite was the East Timor Peaberry, a bright, fruity brew that unfolds with floral aromas and a malty sweetness. It uses beans sourced from several remote coffee villages on an island nation in Southeast Asia, according to the card that accompanied it.
I struck up a conversation with my neighbours at the bar -- a pair of Starbucks baristas who drove down from the East Bay to sample the much-talked-about Sun-Dried Brazil Barinas. They excitedly quizzed the barista about the equipment behind the bar.
Later, I ordered the the Nitro Cold Brew with Sweet Cream for $9. It's made by infusing a rare, cold-brew micro-blend (whose origin is unknown even to the baristas) with nitrogen gas and pouring at high pressure from a tap, which gives it a frothy, Guinness-like finish.
Oh, and it has ice cream. A dollop of 'house-made' vanilla ice cream floats on top. As I drank, the sweet cream melted and turned the coffee into a decadent dessert.
Starbucks Reserve bar wants to bring in aspiring coffee aficionados -- people who prefer more personal cafés over a big chain.
My visit was more expensive than my average trip to Starbucks. But I paid more for the experience and ambiance than the four cups of coffee I downed. (I left very buzzed.)
There's still a Starbucks sign above the entrance. For some, it will signal that the Reserve bar is just another place to get work done. Starbucks will have to continue investing in the customer experience and diversifying its menu offerings in order to create something new.
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