Howard Schultz will step down as Starbucks CEO for the second time, after changing the way the world drinks coffee.
Believe it or not, there was a time not too long ago when most people had never tasted a latte.
Then Starbucks happened, or more precisely, Howard Schultz happened.
The Seattle coffee company, founded as a coffee bean retailer in 1971, didn't open its first cafe until 1984. On the April morning when that first espresso bar opened — a 300-square-foot space inside one of Starbucks' bean stores — baristas began serving a drink Schultz had tried on a visit to Verona, Italy.
It was a drink that "many customers had never heard of: caffè latte, espresso with steamed milk," Schultz later recalled in Pour Your Heart Into It. "As far as I know, America was first introduced to caffè latte that morning."
The rest is grande-skinny-with-two-pumps-of-vanilla history.
On Monday, Schultz — the father of the American latte — steps down as CEO, for the second time in his career.
No matter your opinion of Starbucks, it has shaped the way you drink coffee. Within three decades, that single Seattle espresso bar exploded into more than 26,000 cafes around the world, selling $21.3 billion worth of food and drink last year. And that's just Starbucks itself — the chain's many imitators have turned the latte and its milky relatives into a ubiquitous international commodity, as ever-present as the Big Mac, as symbolic of global consumer culture as the iPhone.
Schultz recalls his first encounter with the latte in his book:
"One morning I took a train ride to Verona. Although it’s only a forty-minute ride from industrial Milan, it felt as if it had stood still since the thirteenth century. Its coffee bars were much like Milan’s, and in one, I mimicked someone and ordered a “caffè latte,” my first taste of that drink. I had expected it to be just coffee with milk, but I watched as the barista made a shot of espresso, steamed a frothy pitcher of milk, and poured the two into a cup, with a dollop of foam on the top.
Here was the perfect balance between steamed milk and coffee, combining espresso, which is the noble essence of coffee, and milk made sweet by steaming rather than by adding sugar. It was the perfect drink. Of all the coffee experts I had met, none had ever mentioned this drink. No one in America knows about this, I thought. I’ve got to take it back with me.
People now take for granted that wherever they go — to work, to the airport, to the mall, or virtually anywhere in America — there'll be a coffee place churning out Starbucks-style drinks, if not an actual Starbucks. Even McDonald's and Burger King are now promoting their coffee selection.
"He introduced Americans to the espresso bar," said Ken Nye, owner of Ninth Street Espresso. And most importantly, to anyone wanting to run a coffee business, he introduced Americans "to paying $3-4 for a drink." In the pre-Starbucks era, most people knew of coffee as something that cost 50¢ a cup.
By making coffee more expensive, Starbucks laid the groundwork for an entire wave of coffee shops that have colonized America and the world. It wasn't merely the latte that Schlutz introduced to many American consumers; it was also dark roast arabica and espresso, the Frappuccino, and sugary espresso beverages in general.
And there was also the comfy seating and free WiFi, the ambient music and vaguely cool baristas, and all the other ingredients of the concept Schultz describes as a "third place" — a "comfortable, sociable gathering spot away from home and work" that isn't a bar. These were experiences that the CEO, romanced by Italy's vibrant cafe scene, wanted to import to the US.
"Had he not done what he had to bring his love of coffee in Italy to the US, then the smaller players wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing," said Jonathan Rubinstein, owner of New York's Joe Coffee, a small chain that recently attracted investment from Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer. "He brought accessibility, the language, and interest. Everyone owes so much to him."