Monday, July 20, 2009

A Fallen Star(bucks)

One week ago, on Monday, July 13, I was at a local Starbucks here in Boulder, Colorado for an interview (I was being interviewed this time, rather than the usual vice versa). At the counter, the store had a nice little display for Valencia Orange Cakes, a gluten-free baked good! This was new... in all my years of occasionally popping into a Starbucks, I had yet to see a gluten-free option for the baked goods. (Most local, independent coffee shops I've visited haven't offered a gluten-free option, and of those that have, I've been surprised at how many co-mingle the GF and non-GF baked goods on the same tray, thus cross-contaminating the lot.)

My how things have changed in one short week. Two days later, on July 15, I was in Denver for a media event. On my way back to the bus station, I stopped in at another Starbucks to pick up a Valencia Orange Cake to review for NGNP. The cakes were nowhere to be found. "They've been discontinued," the barrista told me. What? They were on sale two days ago... The next day, July 16, Starbucks announced via Twitter that the cakes were indeed kaput. After two months, the company pulled the plug. Why?

As best as I can tell, the gluten-free community has had two reactions to this development. One is lamentation. "Why, oh Starbucks, have you taken this gift from us? Why?" To wit, Triumph Dining Gluten-Free Publishing has started a petition, is seeking 5,000 "signatures," and then plans to go to Starbucks corporate to ask them to reinstate the Valencia Orange Cake. I'm doubtful this tactic will work. Starbucks is citing disappointing sales as one reason for discontinuing the VOC.

But here's the rub: a company as big and corporate and methodical and calculated as Starbucks doesn't take risks with an uncertain outcome. When the company started sourcing more fair trade, organic, eco-friendly coffees from Central America, there was an element of altruism to it, but there was an even greater response to market demand. Starbucks offered those coffees because people wanted them and bought them. The same is true of the VOC. There's an element of altruism to offering a GF baked good for customers, but more so, Starbucks is responding to a market demand, and hoping that consumers like you and me will respond by visiting their stores and opening our wallets.

I'm willing to bet that Starbucks doesn't make any major business decision - unveiling the VOC, a new Frappuccino, whatever - without thinking things through in advance. The company spends major money on the development and testing of new recipes, does plenty of market research about the sales potential, and unleashes a flood of marketing and publicity to get the word out when they unveil a new "thing," etc. You can be sure they know how things are going to play out before they ever move the first chess piece. So did Starbucks really get blindsided by less than enthusiastic sales? I doubt it.

Here's an alternative theory (and this is just a theory...I have no hard data to back this up): the VOC wasn't made in a dedicated GF facility. Starbucks employed strict protocols to minimize cross-contamination possibilities, wrapped the cakes invidivually in plastic to prevent the same, and tested the batches to a level of 20ppm, the strictest international standard (typically ranging from 20 to 200ppm) for GF certification. But what if that wasn't enough? What if some customers got sick from gluten cross-contamination, and the Starbucks lawyers got worried about liability? It's an entirely plausible scenario, especially considering that Starbucks plans to replace the VOC with KIND Fruit & Nut Bars. The KIND Bars are gluten-free, and since they're from a third party company, Starbucks can ostensibly offer a GF option for customers, while "outsourcing" any liability for gluten cross-contamination.

That's part 1 of my argument. But I said the GF community has had two reactions to this development. Here's the second: Starbucks has said the VOC wasn't healthy enough, and some GF customers have responded with "Yeah! Give us a healthier GF option. Sounds good to us!" Honestly?

For starters, it's no secret that I'm a big fan of healthy eating; that I eschew high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners; and that I have an aversion to ingredients labels that read like a chemistry kit. And, in Starbucks' defense, the company has unveiled a new initiative to overhaul the food choices to include more diversity, more natural foods, simpler recipes, "real ingredients," no trans fats, no high fructose corn syrup, etc. (Insert applause here. This is a good thing, and Starbucks deserves a pat on the back for it.)

But cancelling the VOC on "not healthy enough" grounds? The VOC only has seven ingredients: whole eggs, orange pulp, almonds, sugar, orange peel, baking powder, and orange oil. That looks pretty good to me. Further, the VOC contains 290 calories. Not exactly a salad made of iceberg lettuce, but if Starbucks really cared about our health, maybe the company should consider eliminating most of its beverage line. Depending on which drink you order - and assuming a Grande size made with 2% milk - Starbucks' beverages can include up to a staggering 640 calories. Upgrade to a Venti and/or whole milk, and the picture is even more grim. A Grande 2% Caramel Macchiato (one of the most popular drinks at Starbucks) has 240 calories, and a similarly sized Caramel Frappuccino Blended Coffee has 380 calories, 130 of those from fat.

On the food side, the menu doesn't fair much better. A butter croissant (a fairly standard and basic offering) has 310 calories at my local Starbucks. And there are plenty of less healthy choices to be had.

Look, I'm all for healthier menu options. But I'm not for a corporation canceling a menu item under health pretenses when the rest of the menu is anything but. Maybe I'm feeling cynical today. Or maybe this is the investigative journalist in me coming out. There's a maxim in investigative journalism (I've forgotten where I heard this...perhaps the New York Times) that goes something like this: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out." Don't accept facts at face value. Dig deeper. Connect the dots.

I'm not trying to advance any kind of Starbucks conspiracy theory here, but I do find the sequence of events surrounding the VOC suspicious. At some point in the near future, Starbucks stores around the country will start selling KIND bars, and gluten-free consumers will have a new option. With that option, this will all probably blow over. But I'd be curious to know the real story behind why the VOC was pulled so soon after it was announced. Alas, that's a behind-the-scenes story we'll likely never hear.

- Pete


Wendy said...

A KIND bar? Seriously, I can buy these in bulk from Amazon. Why would I pay for an overpriced one from Sbux?

Funny...just yesterday I banged out a frustration post about the VOC.

When you want a granola bar, you eat a granola bar. BUT when you want cake...YOU GET CAKE!!!!!!

Perhaps your theory is correct. I don't know. The free pastry coupon for 7/21 has the VOC listed as an option.

Thanks for nothing, Sbux.

I'm just really ticked about the whole thing. I want it brought back...and I want a few more GF goodies added to the line up. The KIND bar would be fine -- if there were other options too.

Instead of settling for a granola bar and wiping their hands clean of the whole thing, they should look into contracting with GF bakeries. It would be a win/win situation for everyone.

peterbronski said...

Hi Wendy... your frustration comes through loud and clear in your post! =) It'll be interesting to see how Starbucks responds to some of the backlash in the GF community - will enough people speak up and create a tidal wave of feedback that prompts Starbucks to reconsider? Or will a vocal few make a lot of noise but not compell Starbucks to change its course of action because they're just too small a population of consumer to bother with...

Cheers, Pete

gfe--gluten free easily said...

The word on the street is that they were not selling that many, plus the shelf life was only 2 days, AND I heard untrained personnel were unwrapping them and had them on plates with gluten-containing goodies. I've only been in Starbucks once ... to buy a gift card for someone, so I never tried the cake. Most who did were underwhelmed. I think they just screwed up in their pre-launch research and in this economy, it's easier for them to pull the product and go for someone else's product than fix it. Contracting with gf bakeries is a great idea though. From my viewpoint, they'd do best if they selected products that were naturally gluten free and wonderful (flourless, almond flour, etc.) that everyone would enjoy, but they need to learn to keep them in the wrapping, that's for sure.


peterbronski said...

Hey Shirley... in a way what you've been hearing about employees unwrapping the VOCs and putting them on plates with gluten goodies is confirmation of my theory - that Starbucks found itself dealing with unexpected contamination issues. The important thing is, looking ahead, I'll be curious to see where Starbucks goes...

Cheers, Pete