Pouring out a strong cup of Starbucks gossip

by Melissa Allison

The Seattle Times (MCT)

11 January 2008


When Jim Romenesko isn’t running the premier Web page about journalism-industry news, he is monitoring two other subjects: unusual news stories at ObscureStore.com and the world’s largest coffee-shop chain at StarbucksGossip.com.

Romenesko’s full-time job is with the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media-training center in Florida. From coffee shops in the Midwest, he tracks the media business on a Poynter page known simply as “Romenesko.”

Few readers know what Romenesko looks like. He said he prefers it that way, partly to avoid being recognized in Starbucks stores.

Begun in 2004, StarbucksGossip.com is where baristas and customers discuss which syrups are in stock and whether it’s ethical for customers to save money by ordering straight espresso, then adding their own milk for a “poor man’s latte.”

The site gained notoriety this year when someone leaked it a memo written by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz to top executives sharing his fears about the company losing its soul.

Here’s an edited interview with Romenesko, conducted via e-mail:

Q. Why do people care enough about Starbucks to keep your Web site active?

A. When I launched the site nearly four years ago, I wanted to move the conversations that I’d hear between baristas and customers in the stores over to the Web—questions about drinks, new products and just general observations about Starbucks. I also knew that people are so passionate about Starbucks—as everyone knows, there are extreme haters and extreme lovers—that the discussions were bound to be lively. Also, I have learned that a lot of people use Google and other search engines to find information about the company, its drinks, product nutrition, etc.

Q. How serious is your coffee habit, and how much of it is satisfied at Starbucks?

A. I only drink drip coffee. I start the day with a cup at home—I roast my own beans with a mini-roaster at home—then head to my neighborhood Starbucks in Evanston. I’m there by 6 a.m. From there, I move to an independent coffee shop with free Wi-Fi and I’ll nurse a personal cup. By the end of the day, I’ve probably had a half-dozen cups.

Q. What’s your favorite coffee shop?

A. I have several: Metropolis Coffee in Chicago, Intelligensia Coffee in Chicago, Unicorn Cafe in Evanston, Alterra Coffee and Anodyne Coffee in Milwaukee and Dunn Brothers in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I like Starbucks in a way that I like other chains; it’s pretty consistent and you know what you’re getting. My favorite Starbucks is in Kenosha, Wis., at Interstate 94 and Highway 50. It has probably the most “genuinely friendly” group of employees that I’ve encountered.

Q. Which of your three Web sites is your favorite?

A. That’s like asking a mother which of her children she likes best!

Q. What are the funniest posts by StarbucksGossip readers?

A. I asked Starbucks employees to name the celebrities who frequent their stores and reveal what drinks the celebs ordered. A lot of those responses made me laugh, including one from a barista at the Starbucks across the street from Johnson Space Center in Webster (Houston). “75 percent of our business is NASA employees. When we get bored, we like to watch the NASA channel and spot customers.”

Q. What do they complain about most?

A. Tipping! I started a thread asking: “How much should you tip for a cup of coffee?” The reaction was incredible. Many people were over-the-top passionate about NOT tipping for a cup of coffee. A few Starbucks baristas put people on notice that people who didn’t tip would get “decaffed”—meaning, of course, the caffeinated drink they ordered would not have any caffeine in it.

Q. How feisty do posters get, and about what?

A. As mentioned, tipping. Any discussion of unionization at Starbucks stores stirs things up on the site.

Q. You sometimes work at Pick a Cup, an independent coffee shop with free wireless Internet. Why go to Starbucks, which charges for it?

A. I think Starbucks’ refusal to drop the wireless Internet fee is a huge mistake. Free Internet is the standard at independent coffee shops, and they’re thriving because of it. From what I’ve seen, customers don’t park all day at a table and abuse the free Internet; they get food items, refill drinks, give big tips, etc. They appreciate the free Internet and let the independent shops know. I continue to pay for—actually, the Poynter Institute pays for it—Starbucks/T-Mobile Wi-Fi because when I’m on the road, I frequently pull off the interstate and go into a Starbucks to update my sites. The nice thing about Starbucks being everywhere is that Internet access is everywhere—for those who pay the $30 a month.

Q. Do any of the baristas know who you are?

A. Only one that I know of. She gave me awful service, I wrote about it, and she heard about it from my readers, who, I understand, called the store. She figured out who I was. Here’s the whole saga: http://tinyurl.com/ysr7ge.

Q. Does Starbucks contact you, and about what?

A. I’ve heard from their PR people via e-mail on three occasions. One time they wanted me to help debunk a free-drink rumor, another time was a general contact-us-if-you-have-questions e-mail. This was the third time: http://tinyurl.com/2bfae9.

Q. How much of your day is spent working on StarbucksGossip?

A. Very little. I use Google Alerts to find stories about anything Starbucks-related. When I’m “off the clock” from my full-time Poynter job, I’ll check the comments to see if anything needs to be deleted. It’s a pretty low-maintenance site that relies on readers to provide “content” via the comments.

Q. Does the site make money?

A. It makes some money from Google AdSense ads and BlogAds on the left side of the page.

Q. How was it affected when you posted Howard Schultz’s memo saying he fears that Starbucks stores have lost their soul?

A. The site got huge exposure from stories in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and every other paper in the country that ran the Associated Press item. Also CNBC did a half-hour report on the memo and sent a lot of traffic my way. I was getting 50,000 visits a day on the site for several days. I still see traffic every day from Web searches for the memo. One business school apparently uses the memo for a class because I see a lot of traffic from the school that goes directly to the memo on my page.

Q. Do you think Schultz got it right in the memo?

A. Yes, particularly this line: “One of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store.” I laugh because Starbucks doesn’t let employees use perfume or cologne while on duty because it will get in the way of the smell of coffee in the stores. That’s laughable now, because when I walk into a Starbucks now, I smell egg and bacon from the breakfast sandwiches and think for a second that I’m in a McDonald’s.

Q. What do you think of Schultz?

A. I read his book several years ago and thought his business values were admirable. His controversial memo, which was leaked to me, shows that he truly is concerned about the company and where it’s going. When I walk into a Starbucks that reeks of sausage-and-egg muffins (as opposed to the smell of freshly roasted coffee), I often wonder: WHAT WOULD HOWARD THINK?

Q. What do you think of Starbucks’ plan to have 40,000 stores worldwide?

A. Starbucks was once something special because the stores weren’t everywhere; now they are. And it appears they’re having a hard time finding good help as they grow faster and faster.

I recently had a drip-coffee refill at a new store in the north suburbs of Chicago. The employee couldn’t figure out how to ring up a coffee refill. She had to go to the back room and have a boss show her how to do it.

I wrote about this on StarbucksGossip and was attacked by many employees for not understanding how difficult it is use the register. They said there are over 100 buttons on it, etc. My response is: I don’t care how many buttons are on the register; when I go to a coffee shop, I would expect the employee knows how to run up a simple cup of coffee.

Q. Any advice for the company following its recent decline in U.S. traffic?

A. Offer free Wi-Fi, concentrate on coffee (not movie promotions, etc.) and reward regular customers with a free drink for every 10 purchased.


Jim Romenesko, the webmaster

Vital stats: Single white male, 54, living in a one-bedroom condo in Evanston, Ill.

Childhood: Grew up in Walworth, Wis., with nine brothers and sisters.

Reporting career: Covered cops and the suburbs for the Milwaukee Journal, then wrote about media and crime for 13 years at Milwaukee Magazine before moving to the news-media beat at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

ObscureStore.com: Romenesko taught himself Web coding from a “Unix For Dummies” book, and in 1998 began a hobby of compiling weird news stories and media coverage at ObscureStore.com. Now it gets about 25,000 visits a day with links to stories like “Eight cows flee after their truck pulls into a McDonald’s” and “Wife shoots flat-screen TV in home-temperature dispute.”

“Romenesko” at Poynter.org: He spun off the media part, which is now known simply as “Romenesko.” In 1999, it was snapped up by a nonprofit media-training center in Florida called the Poynter Institute. The page gets about 100,000 views a day.

StarbucksGossip.com: Working from home and several coffee shops, Romenesko decided to keep an eye on Starbucks in his spare time and launched StarbucksGossip.com in August 2004. Baristas, customers and investors discuss everything from Howard Schultz to restroom cleanliness on the site, which gets about 7,500 visits a day.

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