Don't Like Starbucks? Surprise! Says Seattle's Best

Stewart Brothers Coffee was surely not the first company to serve espresso drinks in Seattle's Pike Place Market, but around 1990, it was deemed by a local taste test to be Seattle's Best. What a great name, poking sly fun at Starbucks, Seattle's first, biggest and most famous, yes? So in 1991, Seattle's Best Coffee (SBC) was born.

A few acquisitions, 12 years, and not a little irony later, Starbucks became the owner of SBC, and would, full of either hubris or humor, keep the brand's name intact.

And thus was born a future for Michelle Gass, who is (as I learned in a review of CEO Howard Schultz' new book) his favorite executive at Starbucks, always eager to take on whatever impossible challenge he might set before her. Such as this one: Sell Starbucks coffee to people who don't like Starbucks, who find it too burnt (Howard calls this a "Full City Roast"), who are still sure Starbucks doesn't give free coffee to our troops (that's been myth-busted many a time), or who don't care for the way Starbucks has driven independent coffee shops out of business.

Whatever your hangup, Seattle's Best Coffee just sounds way friendlier (and has a little stick-it-to-the-man vibe). And Gass, fresh off victorious career moves like green straws, domed lids and the monstrous success that is the Frappuccino, is out to market to those who hate everything she's ever done.

The first thing you do when you come from a reviled coffee giant targeted toward the sort of snobs who know the difference between coffee from Sumatra and Guatemala (*cough*) is to come up with your own cutesy descriptions of your blends. Enough with the notes of citrus and honey and tobacco; down with vague terms like "full bodied" and "mellow." What does that even mean?

So Gass' coffee blends come in colors and numbers, preschool-style, or maybe Seventeen Magazine personality test-style. One, or gold, is the lightest ("Happily pragmatic, you enjoy the simpler things in life. People love your easygoing spirit. If there were a lot more people like you, we'd hear a lot fewer car horns and see a lot more smiles.") and five, purple, is the strongest ("When you walk into a room, everybody notices. You've never lost a staring contest. Self-assured and focused, you've got what it takes to be a leader in both work and play.")

Or is this just a front for Match.com? Four, turquoise blue, says of its ideal drinker, "You're quite the mystery. Even if you were an open book, it would be written in hieroglyphics. Both wise and clever, you're well respected by everyone who knows you." Maybe ones are drawn to fours? Will there be a horoscope included in each bag?

It's a tough business -- essentially competing with Daddy Bucks and only mentioned in the new brand's web site where it's absolutely unavoidable (see "History"). Though Gass has long been Howard's favorite, she's now operating as if she's pitted against her former teammate in a long, long episode of Apprentice. Who will sell the most coffee by the end of the year? The controlling older man with a long history of coffee-selling who wants to promote the coffee on the merits of the bean and the carefully-maintained atmosphere of the stores? Or the energetic young girl who comes from a background selling toothpaste and sugary drinks, and is willing to put her perky coffee anywhere -- airplanes, vending machines, Subway, Burger King, movie theatres -- and talk baby talk and bat her eyes to make sales.

Gass told Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News that she was interested in appealing to Americans who now drink unbranded coffee and would probably dig a better cup if they could do so without kowtowing to the Starbucks Way. "With our big sister upstairs who owns coffee, the only way we have a chance to get a piece of that is to be disruptive," Gass said primly.

If this were a reality show, we would cut away to the commercial with a teaser of the upcoming insult-slinging incident between Gass and Schultz, once mentor and mentored, now separated by the wanna-be starlet's climbing ways and easy ability to close a sale.

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