“What is a flat white?” I asked the barista.
“It’s like ristretto coffee, that’s strong coffee, and whole milk.”
“What’s the milk like?”
“It’s like whole milk and there’s supposed to be a white dot on the top.”
“How’s it different from a cappuccino?”
“I don’t know. There isn’t …” she trailed off, looking to the other barista. “What’s the difference between a flat white and a cappuccino?”
“It’s got whole milk and a cappuccino is 2%,” the second barista said, “and it’s ristretto coffee.
“But people can get different milk with a flat white,” the first one said uncertainly.
I ordered a flat white and what they made tasted good, with sweet, rich coffee and lightly steamed milk, but they made it wrong, the milk too liquid, not the velvety microfoam it should be; and their explanation of a flat white compared to a cappuccino was ridiculous.
Here’s how Starbucks describes the drinks:
I pay attention to the things Starbucks gets wrong because I used to work there, and for years I was an ardent defender. Is Starbucks slipping? Probably, though it could be just that I am adjusting my once overly positive opinion to reality.
I became a Starbucks believer after working at the chain in 2009, impressed by the careful training I received, the strict coffee-making test I had to pass, and how we were instructed to throw out coffee if it sat longer than 30 minutes. For years after, I praised Starbucks for getting espresso drinks right while other chains screwed them up.
Yet time and again, and perhaps now more than ever, the chain has disappointed me.
To start, many baristas don’t know what a flat white is. Although the first time I ordered the chain’s famous new drink it was made perfectly, the second time I ordered it they made something with far too little foam, and when I asked the barista the difference between a flat white and a latte, she shrugged and said she didn’t know.
Too often I’ve ordered a cappuccino and been served a latte (which has more milk, less foam), and too often it’s been scalding hot.
It amuses me how many baristas don’t know what you’re talking about, at least not at first, when you ask for a short (a size from the early days of Starbucks that every store keeps by the other cups and which makes for the best cappuccino).
And then there’s how long it takes to get in and out of some Starbucks. While the chain has always prided itself on efficiency — and my team could be wonderfully efficient — it seems to take awfully long to get in and out these days, especially if you or anyone else orders one of the pastries they now insist on heating up.
Such inconsistency and slippage is a risk for a connoisseur brand as it expands, and Starbucks is still expanding fast, with 1,600 stores added last year and more than 20,000 worldwide. While revenue climbed 11% to more than $US16 billion last year, the ubiquitous chain is losing a once devoted fan in me.
I’ll still go, of course — the coffee is decent and the locations are convenient — but I won’t get my hopes up.
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