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Monday, March 3, 2008

Is Phoenix overpowering Starbucks in the hearts of coffee drinkers?

Posted By on Mon, Mar 3, 2008 at 5:51 AM

Erin felt trapped. The barista had to sit through a three-hour espresso refresher course. But Erin had been making espresso for years. Her tall-double-shot-latte was perfect. If a coffee geek from Seattle walked into her store, they’d be impressed. Erin is strong member of the Green Mermaid Army. Still, Erin had no option not to attend. Across the land last week, more than 7,000 Starbucks shops shut down at 5:30 p.m. sharp. They wanted to retrain their baristas. Chief Executive Howard Schultz thought it was vital following whispers in coffee-land that his company lost its soul… So Erin and her co-workers watched a demonstration of remedial espresso making. They learned how to steam milk properly. They learned how long it takes to pull a perfect shot. They learned how to add the right amount of foam. They learned to take pride in their drinks. But they didn’t learn how to become professional baristas. Starbucks still relies on push-button, automated espresso machines. Across town, Jessie Mueller put a sign up in the window of Phoenix coffee. It read: Tonight, Starbucks is closed to train their baristas… as for us, we’re already trained. Mueller and co-workers at the Cleveland coffee roaster found it amusing that the behemoth broker of coffee was having trouble making coffee. “I guess that’s why I love working at Phoenix,” she says. “Before we even begin to work, we have to complete seven-hours of training.” Phoenix is among a breed of tiny, high-end roasters that are scaring the scales off the Mermaid. They’re doing it by training the taste buds of their customers and treating each espresso as a form of art. It sounds hokey, but they back it up. Their baristas can tell you if the bean came from Panama or Ethiopia. Okay, it really sounds hokey, and it could be a mind trick. But inside their stores, a person can witness a strange breed of coffee drinker: one who doesn’t use cream or sugar. “People can actually start to enjoy their coffee,” says Mueller, “rather than guzzle it.” It’s a minor victory. But a win’s a win. – Bradley Campbell


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