Sips and Stories: A Tale of Two Coffee Cultures

Shah Mohammed
4 min readDec 8, 2023

A few years ago, I visited a well-known Indian coffee brand’s branch situated in the Lifestyle store of a mall in Chennai. To my surprise, they didn’t have menus readily available, a departure from the usual practice of this popular chain. Over recent visits, I had noticed a trend where the particular store seldom provided menus unless explicitly requested, and on a couple of occasions, they even stated that there were no menus available. This practice seemed unusual for a brand with a wide presence across thousands of branches.

Undeterred, my friend and I proceeded to order our regular choices — a sandwich and a cappuccino each. After a brief wait, our sandwiches arrived, each unexpectedly accompanied by a bowl of cheese balls. Assuming it to be a complimentary offering, we enjoyed the unexpected addition. To our further surprise, our cups of coffee were served with packets of cookies, doubling our pleasant surprise.

However, our astonishment turned into shock when we received the bill, which included charges for the cheese balls and cookies. Confused and feeling deceived, I promptly called the manager to express our concerns. The manager explained that they didn’t sell sandwiches alone; ordering a sandwich automatically included the cheese balls. Similarly, ordering coffee came with the cookies. I expressed my frustration, stating that we were never informed of this policy, and the absence of menus exacerbated the situation. The manager mentioned they were awaiting new printed menu cards, leaving customers in the dark about these bundled offerings.

Reluctantly, we paid the unexpected charges, witnessing similar scenes at other tables where families expressed shock upon receiving their bills. It seemed like an attempt to boost sales or meet targets by selling additional items in a seemingly unscrupulous manner.

Feeling compelled to address the issue, I sent a detailed email to the customer service of that Indian coffee brand, outlining the experience. Promptly, I received a response thanking me for bringing it to their attention and assuring corrective action.

Upon revisiting the same coffee branch after a week, I noticed a new team in place, and menus were now available. The questionable practice of bundled offerings without prior notice had ceased. However, I couldn’t help but ponder how many frustrated customers might have chosen to abandon this coffee chain altogether. During that time, with relatively less competition, the brand could perhaps afford such missteps.

Regrettably, my experience wasn’t isolated to one store; rather, I encountered issues across multiple branches of the same coffee chain. In a different store, I ordered a cold coffee but received a beverage at room temperature. Upon inquiry, I learned that their chiller was out of service. The absence of proactive communication before placing the order left us with a drink we couldn’t enjoy, prompting us to leave it untouched on the table.

These experiences starkly contrast with the philosophy that guided Starbucks, a company that has consistently placed paramount importance on customer experience since its inception.

Drawing a parallel to the Starbucks success story, Howard Schultz, the visionary behind the brand, recognized early on that the behaviours of baristas and store managers could make or break the customer experience, directly impacting the brand’s reputation. Schultz viewed Starbucks not merely as a coffee retailer but a community, with customers and storefront employees, whom he termed “partners,” playing integral roles.

Schultz believed in creating a positive work environment for his partners, the store employees. He understood that a motivated and satisfied team translates into a better customer experience. From the very beginning, he instituted health plans for employees(including part-timers), ensuring their well-being. Additionally, Starbucks employees received food benefits, contributing to a supportive workplace culture.

However, Schultz went beyond the basics. Recognizing the value of autonomy and recognizing the importance of employees feeling a sense of ownership, Schultz implemented policies that empowered Starbucks partners. Baristas were encouraged to personalize customer interactions, fostering a genuine connection with patrons. This emphasis on the human element set Starbucks apart and created a welcoming atmosphere that extended beyond the coffee itself.

One of the most groundbreaking moves by Schultz was the introduction of the Starbucks Bean Stock program. This initiative allowed employees to own a stake in the company, aligning their interests with the long-term success of Starbucks. The notion of employees as partners, not just workers, reflected Schultz’s belief in shared success and mutual growth.

In stark contrast to the impersonal and profit-driven practices observed in the Indian coffee incident, Schultz’s approach at Starbucks emphasized a holistic perspective on business — one where customer satisfaction and employee well-being were intertwined. This approach not only contributed to Starbucks’ rise to global prominence but also solidified its reputation as a brand that genuinely cared about its customers and employees alike.

In conclusion, the Indian coffee incident serves as a stark reminder of the significance of customer-centric approaches in business. By drawing a parallel to Starbucks and Howard Schultz’s visionary leadership, it becomes clear that investing in the behaviours and well-being of store employees is not just a business strategy but a philosophy that can shape the destiny of a brand.