Former Starbucks workers say the chain’s mobile ordering is out of control – leading to in-store delays, rude customers, and the pressure to make TikTok-inspired drinks

A Starbucks employee wears a face shield and mask as she makes a coffee in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12, 2020.
Customers are increasingly asking for heavily modified drinks. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
  • Starbucks workers say the chain is letting too many customers place orders on its app.
  • They say some stores don’t have the capacity to keep up with demand.
  • Starbucks also allows unlimited drink modifications via its app, which staff say they’re sick of.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As well as racing to bring down drive-thru times and navigating maskless customers, Starbucks workers are facing another challenge: mobile orders.

Customers have turned to the Starbucks app during the pandemic because it allows them to order in advance and without any face-to-face interaction. Some baristas say this has left them swamped with mobile orders, which now make up more than a quarter of its US transactions.

“The whole mobile order system is really bad,” Nat El-Hai, a former Beverly Hills Starbucks barista, told Insider.

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Current and former staff told Insider that the chain is letting too many customers place orders on its app and it doesn’t have enough staff, causing delays for in-store customers.

A Starbucks spokesperson told Insider that this was “not illustrative of the customer and partner experience in a majority of our stores.”

Mobile orders start trickling through as soon as her North Carolina store opens at 5 a.m., barista Sarah Ann Austin said.

One former New York barista said most of their store’s sales were mobile orders, and that they could get more than seven a minute during busy times.

El-Hai said her store would often be swamped with walk-in and drive-thru customers and was “chronically understaffed.” She said staff were told they couldn’t turn mobile ordering off, however.

A former barista from Long Beach, California, said that before the pandemic when the store was too busy, management sometimes used to turn off the point-of-sale system used for mobile ordering and pretend that the server was down.

Customers expect rapid service and heavily modified drinks

Customers get an estimated collection time when they order on the app. A Starbucks spokesperson told Insider that this helped to stagger arrivals based on how long drinks take to make.

But El-Hai and Austin said that many customers placed their app orders on their way to the store and didn’t give enough time for staff to prepare their drinks. They were angry if they had to wait, the barista said. Some customers even placed orders on the app after arriving at the store, El-Hai said.

On the other hand, some customers were very late to collect their orders, but would “get mad” if the baristas had thrown their drinks away, El-Hai said. A former Los Angeles barista said staff sometimes had to remake drinks if they were cold or had melted by the time customers arrived.

At times, the app sometimes didn’t update when ingredients ran out in the store, meaning people would order drinks that couldn’t be made, El-Hai said. Mobile-order refunds could only be carried out on the app, which could be slow, “and people get really upset with you,” El-Hai said.

“It’s not set up the way it needs to be,” Stephanie, a barista in British Columbia, Canada, said. She told Insider that sometimes the app didn’t reflect when the chain’s collectable coffee cups were out of stock.

The Starbucks spokesperson said: “The app shows what is available in each location and the stores turn it on and off. It is accurate and it says what it has available.”

The workers also said that customers were taking advantage of the unlimited modifications available through mobile ordering. One shift supervisor in Maryland said some customers added modifications “just because they’re there.”

They added: “People can make drink combinations that not only aren’t intuitive but also just don’t make sense.”

El-Hai shared a photo with Insider of a drink she had made for a mobile order customer who had asked for 12 shots of coffee, alongside five shots of hazelnut syrup, in an iced latte.

They added that staff were sick of making so-called “TikTok” drinks, which are inspired by viral trends and not limited to mobile orders.

Other workers told Insider that these drinks slowed down drive-thru times and made customers angry when they weren’t made perfectly. They said that the company should cut down the number of modifications allowed.

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