How far is too far?
That's the question Starbucks barista Josie Morales was faced with when he received an order for an outrageous drink, one that included five bananas, caramel drizzle, heavy cream and extra whipped cream, and seven pumps of dark caramel sauce.
As a joke, Morales posted a picture of the drink and recipe in a now deleted Twitter post with the caption, "On today's episode of why I wanna quit my job."
Morales's post went viral. Soon after, customers across the country were ordering the drink, reportedly driving Starbucks baristas crazy.
In an interview a short time later, Morales revealed he had been fired from Starbucks for violating the company's social media policy. A Starbucks spokesperson points out that the reason for Morales's dismissal was not for this specific tweet but for the violation of social media policy overall. What's more, she says, "Customizing beverages at Starbucks and our baristas' expertise in helping customers find and craft the right beverage has and always will be at the heart of the Starbucks experience."
But instead of firing this barista, Starbucks should have considered giving him a promotion--for helping it identify a major problem:
Starbucks has betrayed its heritage--and is headed toward an unhappy ending.
How Starbucks lost its way
In 1983, Starbucks employee Howard Schultz traveled to Italy, where he became smitten by the romance and charm of Italian coffee bars and the experience they offered.
Schultz had a vision: to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition back to the United States. Eventually becoming CEO of the company, Schultz strived to create a "third place between work and home," one that resembled those charming cafes that won over his heart.
Starbucks built its brand by offering customers that third place: a corner for community and connection, where they could learn about--and get--good coffee. Over the years, it also built a reputation as a good employer, one that provided benefits like health insurance and paid tuition, even for part-time employees.
But in recent years, Starbucks has struggled to with its identity.
The Starbucks of today holds no resemblance to the Italian coffee culture that inspired it. If you were to walk into any one of Italy's countless cafes, you'd find they're very similar to the ones Schultz himself visited decades ago.
You'll still find a place to meet and connect with friends.
You'll still find friendly baristas, experts in their craft. Ready and willing to skillfully provide the most beautiful and delicious espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes you could imagine.
But if you asked any one of those Italian baristas to prepare a drink resembling the one that went viral, they'd think you were joking.
They would calmly explain to you that what you requested is not coffee.
It's not something they do.
If Starbucks wants to remain true to its heritage, it shouldn't be part of what it does, either.
Don't get me wrong. I understand that Starbucks has evolved, that a big part of its current business model is providing customers the opportunity to customize drinks and create orders to suit their unique tastes.
But allowing orders like the one that went viral are beyond reason.
They betray the company's heritage.
They send the wrong message to employees, and customers.
Worst of all, they denigrate the Starbucks brand.
Interestingly, the company "Starbucks" drew its name from the story Moby Dick, which, according to the company website, "evoked the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders."
In the novel, Starbuck is the name of the first mate of the Pequod, the ship commanded by Captain Ahab. Starbuck is a reasonable, thoughtful character, one with a healthy respect of the sea and its inhabitants, including the great whale. This is in stark contrast with Ahab, who is haughty, brazen, and eventually becomes so consumed with his quest for vengeance that he is blind to the consequences of his decisions.
Towards the end of the story, as it becomes clear Ahab's pursuit will end in disaster, Starbuck begs Ahab to turn back.
Of course, the young sailor's requests fall on deaf ears. So, he continues to follow the captain's orders, knowing they will lead to irreversible consequences.
Starbucks brass would do well to take a lesson from "Starbuck" the character. They should reach out to baristas like Morales, and listen carefully.
And if they don't...
Maybe Starbucks should change its name to Ahab's.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comments from a Starbucks spokesperson.