Barista art in Starbucks is dying. It’s fading away. It’s almost none existent.  It has been replaced with quick, easy, down and dirty stencil art. This is very disappointing to me.  Why is it a dying Starbucks tradition? I can only make guesses but the answers seem obvious:  The labor at a Starbucks is stretched so thin that there is hardly time to even do the chalkboards, and with Starbucks encouraging the use of stencils, there is a push towards uniformity.

It saddens me to see chalkboard art fading away from Starbucks in favor of uniform simplistic stenciling.  This has always been one of the things that gave each Starbucks its unique personality.

When I started the barista art contest in a previous blog post, I had thought that art work, as I had stumbled upon at the First and Pike Starbucks was common place.  I was wrong.

Instead, as I traversed a variety of Starbucks I discovered chalkboard art is a rarity.  I heard this from others all across the country.  One twitter friend who wanted to join in the ‘find the barista art’ contest said this:

I have now visited, since 1 pm, a dozen starbucks in NYC and none had chalk art for @SbuxMel ‘s contest!

I primarily use Twitter to promote this website (though lots of non-twitter folks visit it too) and another regular participant here (who is here in Western Washington) at this site had this to say about finding Starbucks barista-produced chalkboard art:

@lyracole yeah lots of non @starbucks have coffee chalkboard art but I rarely see it at @starbucks stores anymore 🙁

And yet again, this same message was tweeted to me, this time from the state of New Jersey:

@SbuxMel Not only am I not finding original barista art I am not finding any barista art

I heard this theme over and over again, in direct messages, emails, and on twitter. Starbucks barista produced art is a thing of the past, or very rare.

Here in another tweet, from the state of Arizona, again I heard that there is no barista art:

@SbuxMel 4 more Starbucks over the past 4 days…NONE had any diff chalkboard drawings, or any standing/outside chalkboards! Arrgh…

A February 15, 2010 comment by “yukonlvr” at Starbucks Gossip also is quite telling of the same story: Customers can consider original barista-created art to be a thing of yester-year:


chalkboard art is definitely becoming a thing of the past. it sucks because i love doing chalk signs because it allows me to be creative, but my manager hates it because ‘i take too long.’ 🙁 i hated when stencils rolled out because it just makes all the signs look blah. i recently got to do a valentine’s day sign though, so i’ll send a pic and enter! hopefully they haven’t washed it off yet! one of my favorites was a promo for brazil ipanema bourbon i did a year ago. she was beautiful!

Probably in the mind of Starbucks, worrying about the chalkboards is the least of their concerns. It doesn’t affect the quality of the drink, and it is only a drain on labor.  I’m sure that no one in Starbucks will care about this kind of thing:  Discouraging barista art does nothing to affect the P & L sheet, doesn’t create beverage complaints, and doesn’t affect shareholders.  There are no corporate partners who would worry about this kind of thing, I surmise. Who cares?

I care.

On many occasions, I have written that every drinks has two distinct parts to it. (1) the drink itself and (2) the experience.  Some of these things can be quantitatively easily measured:  How fast was it made? What temperature was it served at? How long was the wait? But as Starbucks increasingly focuses on a narrow range of metrics, the qualitative part of the beverage is completely forgotten: It cannot easily be measured, but yet it too affects the bottom line.  How friendly was the barista at the register? And even what was the store like? Did it feel like a cookie-cutter experience?

Ostensibly, Starbucks now attempts to recapture a sense of community and local experience in their latest store designs, and so now would be the right time for Starbucks to revitalize and encourage baristas to show off their local art skills.

Most of the things that really make a Starbucks feel like a third-place for customers, and develop store-loyalty cannot easily be measured. It is not the beverage that can be prepared with a stop-watch. The cachet of the brand is in the experience.  It is true that there has to be some predictability inside the stores – Every Starbucks has the same beverage menu for example, unless by chance the customer happens to stumble upon a store participating in new product testing.

My barista art contest is still ongoing.  As I write this, about a dozen people have emailed me with submissions.  Hopefully more are on the way.  It’s been one week since I started the contest, but I’m disappointed at the constant theme that it is very hard to find anything more than very uniform chalkboards.

Please chime in my friends…

[[Just as a reminder, it is not too late to enter the barista art contest. You do not have to be  a barista or an artist! You just have to find the art, photograph it, and follow the rules as outlined in the contest.]]