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James Biber Remakes Starbucks for ‘Architect’

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The July issue of Architect magazine asked five architects, including James Biber, to redesign Starbucks in light of the company’s recent downturn. (Shares have fallen by 42% in the last year, and the company has announced its plan to shutter 600 stores.) Biber, who is featured on the cover caffeinating in New York’s City Bakery, proposed an environment that caters to a range of experiences—from fast to slow, from social to private—within a setting redesigned to be simple, efficient and universal. The approach even includes a new name for the chain: *$.

Biber’s complete proposal after the jump.

Starbucks: A Proposal

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Starbucks is the Elvis of coffee: a remarkable original with a dedicated following eventually bloated by success and sycophancy. Whether a company whose goal is unending growth can sustain cult status remains unknown, but there is no question that Starbucks will have to evolve to remain the leader, and changing the “physical plant” should be a priority.

Starbucks created, or rather emulated, a mode of social/food service based on the Italian model: a place to go that is neither home nor work, a seriousness about the product and a relationship with the professional server. This worked quite well until the company’s growth demanded a level of efficiency and a range of offerings that contradicted with its casual atmosphere and original intent. At least that is what the company would say.

Another critical perspective might emphasize the company’s failure to change its approach as it grew from a few hundred to more than 15,000 locations. A small cult can approach business differently than a ubiquitous international chain, and Starbucks may be failing to recognize that it can’t package sincerity. Howard Schultz created the original idea; grew it into dysfunction and has now returned to save the company from itself (or from himself!) with a reinjection of his original ideas. It may be too late for those ideas, but it is not too late for a set of new ones.

The loyalty that Starbucks has engendered among those who love its product (and I am one of those who does) can be transformed and embodied into a new level of functionality, but not (I would argue) along the same lines as the original.

Our proposal, therefore, is based on the re-appreciation of the Starbucks dilemma.

The Name

Our new chain has a new name: *$

In recognition of the mission and while admitting that the new version of the company needs to be honest about its global and free market intentions (and to avoid using the actual name of the company), we propose a mark rather than a name. So rather than the Elvis of coffee, we propose the (artist formerly known as…) Prince of coffee!

It is about money as much as coffee and about abbreviation as much as leisure. And it is about recognizing that a name says something about the intentions of a brand: a reference to Moby Dick may not be as relevant a reference as text messaging.

Time and Money

Starbucks is based on the notion of leisure: enjoy the coffee, chat with the barista, have a seat and a conversation, stay all day if you like (and buy some music while you are there).

*$ is based on differing paces and social relationships to the product and the place.

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Now that we are addicted to the product, some of us want our fix immediately, and to go. For those, there is an outside stand so that we may avoid even entering the store. In this situation, thirty seconds is about the right amount of time to wait for a coffee.

This speed is only possible with a reconsideration of the *$ card. Now it is simply a gift card; in the future it will be encoded with your beverage preference right down to the sweetener type and amount. An automatic dispenser will create the precise formula of your standard order (e.g. half caf, non-fat, double shot, no foam Venti latte with one Splenda packet, sleeve and top) in virtually no time at all. Most of us order the same drink every time, and the new card will recognize that fact, while the new machines will create a consistent experience without the false barista relationship. Just the facts.

Then there are those of us who need to think about what we want, and perhaps add a New York Times or a blueberry scone to our order. For those, there is the line right inside the front door (not at the back of the café) where a barista is ready to take our order. The newly designed coffee machines fit below the standard counter height (and why has no one thought about the fact that the world’s largest coffee shop could have machines designed not to block the direct view of the coffee server?) and allow the barista to face the customer and make the beverage at the same time. This option will take about two minutes and includes a bit of optional social interaction, but keeps it perfunctory.

Finally there are those who want to savor their relationship with the barista and the coffee, as well as sit for a bit (or all day) to write the GAN (great American novel) or just do a bit of emailing. And there are even those who prefer to chat with their fellow coffee drinkers, or meet their next great love. For those, there are several choices: sit at the counter and get coffee in a real mug along with lively conversational baristas and a great view of those ordering. Or, take your coffee (china or paper) to the rear café to do some work or chat with your coffee-mate. There is also the standing bar at the perimeter (with laptop shelf and news ticker). Either way, the social part of the experience doesn’t get in the way of the efficiency of other customers (they even become your theater) or of the serving process. You are out of the circulation path for the expeditiously minded, but still in the buzz of the café scene.

There is even an outside seating area for those who prefer the real city to the café society inside.

All of this creates two sets of gradated experiences: fast to slow and social to private. That covers about 98% of the public in a mass-custom experience rather than the 50% or so who subscribe to the implied ethos of the original concept.

Architecture in Service of the Brand

The new stores desperately need updated design ideas. The fake-casual current stores are a homey (or homely) attempt to induce chattiness and engender a homemade, local feel. The new stores are quite the opposite: simple, fast, efficient, universal.

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The store elements will be adaptable to different store shapes and sizes, but they are a consistent set of recognizable pieces that will become familiar to customers.

Counter: the heart of the store is the counter island with all the products and servers. It will be at the front of the store and can be configured to fit the space. It always plugs into the façade for outside service and has a tip-out seating area on the leeward side. It is made of a resin-based shell (front and top) with a set of modular equipment on the server side including the new, low-profile espresso machines and refrigerated and non-refrigerated cases.

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Flooring/Ceiling: the basic message here is espresso-colored cork for the lower part, and aerated panels for the foamy upper part. The separation slot is lit and has a standing height counter along with news tickers and power outlets for laptops in need of charging. The perforated ceiling and upper walls accommodate the lighting, sprinklers, HVAC and all the elements that usually interrupt the upper areas of the store. The lower area is natural and easy on the feet, while coved up the wall to allow for easy maintenance.

Front and Back Facades: the squiggle (think caramel on the latte foam) is the recognizable street element that frames the doors, the outside service and creates the sidewalk seating. Front and back are similar to disguise the fact that the seating is in the rear, not at the windows.

Finally…

No more cups and mugs for sale, no more music CDs (which was and should be a separate business), no more coffee machines and bagged beans, no more decorative bric-a-brac. Just coffee, food, service, newspapers and the aroma of coffee.

All the accessories belong online, not in a store, which can now be smaller, more efficient and act like a food space, not a sales space.

In the end it’s a simple tale:

Like Elvis, who was distracted by ten years of movies and other indulgences, Starbucks has lost its soul. Like Prince, who even stopped performing in order to regain legal control of his music, Starbucks needs to reinvent itself to remain true to the original mission: a great product served in a dedicated environment to a loyal customer.