Starbucks has a large coffee challenge that they don’t really talk about:  How do they source the very highest quality coffee and distribute it to all their stores?  The challenge becomes really obvious when you think about very small growing regions and the large number of stores that Starbucks has to supply coffee to.

The result has been that sometimes single-origin coffees from very small growing regions simply cannot be sent to 16,000 stores. It just doesn’t work that way. The smaller the growing region, the fewer the stores that get that coffee.

Just take a look at a comparison of how different Starbucks markets have a varying amount of stores. According to the 2009 Shareholders’ report, as of September 27, 2009, Starbucks had 6,764 locations in the United States.  In the UK, there were only 666 stores, and Australia has 23 stores.  In 2008, Starbucks began to figure out a way to alleviate some of this coffee-supply-demand tension in the United States.  It began to operate a small number of “Clover” Starbucks which came with Clover brewers and “small batch coffees” not available at other U.S. locations.

But let me back up and explain myself a little better.

Let’s talk about North America:  The typical North American customer will walk into a Starbucks, look at the whole bean wall, and see the following:

  • Verona
  • Sumatra (and decaf Sumatra)
  • Gold Coast Blend
  • Estima Blend
  • Espresso Roast (and decaf Espresso Roast)
  • French Roast
  • Guatemala Antigua
  • Italian Roast
  • House Blend (and decaf House)
  • Pike Place Roast (and decaf Pike Place Roast)
  • Organic Shade Grown Mexico
  • East African (Red) Blend
  • Kenya
  • Yukon Blend

There is often a promotional coffee, such as Gazebo Blend in the summer, Casi Cielo in January, Aged Sumatra, Thanksgiving Blend, or the most recent limited promotional coffee Three Region Blend.  Some of those core coffees still curl my toes.  A lovely cup of Sumatra in the morning is amazing.  And I still love Verona, and Espresso Roast, as fabulous rich caramelly blends.  It is a fine line-up of coffees but it is also equally wonderful to be able to explore easily other more limited coffee offerings.

What about Clover stores in North America?

The typical North American customer who walks into a “Clover” designated store in the United States will now be met with a whole new range of coffees in addition to those mentioned above.  Right now Sulawesi Kalosi, Guatemala Antigua Medina, a New Guinea Peaberry, and Kona are available at the Clover stores.  In two previous blog posts, I uploaded some older Clover coffee menus so you can see the kinds of coffees that have been available at the Clover stores:

Clover Coffee Episode#1 – Late 2007 to August 2008

Clover Coffee Episode #2 – August 2008 to September 2009

What is remarkable about noticing these old Clover menus is that suddenly you see Starbucks essentially offering “estate” coffees or coffees from a small “cooperative” (an “estate” coffee, by definition, is from single coffee farm, however a small cooperative may have a few farms joined by a cooperative agreement) or “small batch coffees” (a “small batch coffee” may be a bean in limited supply, for example, Aged Sumatra, but sourced from several unrelated farms) to a very limited number of stores in North America.

By my estimation, as I write this I think there are about 200 Clover designated stores in North America (I could be quite a bit off, but it’s definitely a small percentage of 6000 stores).  Still, for the average ordinary customer in North America, he or she won’t get a chance to try coffees called Tanzania Blackburn Estate, Zambia Kasama, or Bali Batur Highlands or any other unique small-batch offering that has been sourced for the few hundred Clover stores that exist out of the 6,764 stores across this county.

What is the situation overseas?

Now compare and contrast the North American Starbucks coffee offerings situation with what is offered overseas:  My blog has talked a lot about really special single origin coffees sold internationally by Starbucks.  Most recently, I wrote about Australia having the very limited coffees Sumatra Aceh and Sumatra Siborong-Borong from very small growing regions in Sumatra.  Over and over again, in this blog I’ve brought up the topic of Arabian Mocha Sanani, a very favorite coffee of mine, which comes from a very small growing region near Yemen.  This is another example of a growing region that doesn’t produce enough beans to supply more than 6000 company-operated Starbucks locations (I haven’t even begun to consider licensed stores in this blog post).  But the United Kingdom Starbucks sell this coffee year-round as a core coffee!  That suggests that Starbucks can easily buy enough beans for about 600 stores, but 6000 stores becomes a little more challenging.

At one time I did a blog entry where I mentioned that the United Kingdom briefly had a small supply of a Fair Trade Rwanda coffee from a single, small, cooperative.  My understanding is that it was only sold in the UK because of the limited supply of the beans.  This is not the same coffee as the Rwanda coffee that was offered in the summer of 2009 at Starbucks throughout the U.S.  I’ve also heard that the U.K. and Europe have an organic washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee.

Many international markets also have special coffees produced ONLY for their country as Starbucks tries to celebrate that country with a coffee blended with beans just from the growing region of the host country.  I did a previous blog entry on this and recommend reading it:

Starbucks International Whole Bean – The Rare and the Exotic

By perusing the above blog post, you can see that some countries have special blends made just for them.  South of the Clouds is a blend of beans from the Yunnan province of China and sold only in China.  Brasil Blend is a blend of beans produced with all three wash methods (fully washed, semi washed, sun-dried) and sold only in Brazil.

What does all this mean?

It’s pretty obvious what all this means. The typical customer, and even a very large percentage of store partners, are unaware of the enormous variety of beautiful exotic beans sourced by Starbucks.  There is no way to experience all of these beans.  If a customer is lucky enough to walk into a Clover location, he or she will have exposure to a whole ‘nother selection of coffee beans.  The typical customer and store barista are oblivious to this huge range of additional Starbucks coffees.  On top of that, even if you’re in a Clover store, you still won’t have a chance to experience all the rare coffees sold internationally.  For example, the washed Organic Yirgacheffe has never made it into a Clover store, as well as a number of the limited international coffee offerings.  I’ve often thought that this does a small disservice to Starbucks because some coffee aficionados really want to try something new and exciting, and might erroneously think that there are no very tiny batch coffees by Starbucks, and thus think that they can only buy small estate batch or small batch single-origin coffees at a very small roasting company.

There is a simple answer to all of this:  In order to bring this phenomenal coffee sourcing expertise to more United States stores, the answer is simply don’t send these rare coffee beans to all Starbucks in the United States.  I’ve written this entire blog entry to get to this proposal:  Divide up the United States into smaller regions and then sell smaller batch coffee offerings by region.  For example. perhaps the Pacific Northwest might sell Fair Trade Timor Lorosa’e and the deep South might sell the Organic Yirgacheffe.  All stores would still offer the core coffee offerings, but this would give a chance to people far away from Clover stores to try rare Starbucks beans.  At some level, it’s not totally fair that because if you happen to live in Dallas, Texas there is no way to try Sun Dried Yirgacheffe, Sulawesi Kalosi, 100% Kona, South of the Clouds, and so on …

As Starbucks continues to grow, it will only get harder and harder to find ways to send all of one kind of bean to thousands and thousands of stores, meaning that the need to break up very large markets into small regions for purposes of coffee choices will only slowly grow over time.  Furthermore, as Starbucks strives to retain its status as the premier purveyor of coffee beans, it becomes essential to offer baristas in locations across the country the opportunity to taste and try more than just the core coffee offerings, and an occasional promotional coffee such as Casi Cielo or Mexico Chiapas.

What do you think of this proposal? What other ideas do you have of how to get small batch sourced coffee to a variety of U.S. stores, outside of the Clover coffee designated locations?