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The White-Chocolate Mocha Latte Drizzly Seattle Blues

A desperate quest to pitch the CEO of Starbucks

June 10, 2007|Jeffrey Drayer | Jeffrey Drayer has written for Salon.com and is the author of "The Cost-Effective Use of Leeches and Other Musings of a Medical School Survivor" Galen Press.

There he was, Howard Schultz, the man who turned Starbucks into an empire, sitting in a folding chair, quietly hoping his Sonics could get some scoring off the bench. I had consumed approximately 23 venti white-chocolate mocha lattes during my three-day attempt to track him down. It had cost me many of my last dollars, partial use of my left inferior lung, even my innocence in the eyes of the law. But I'd found him. The tremor in my hand wasn't nerves, I told myself; it was the white-chocolate mocha lattes.

"Excuse me, Mr. Schultz?"

One look at me and his eyes went wide. "Do I know you?"

"Yes," I replied. "Or, well, more correctly, no. But--I'd like to speak with you sometime. About something. You might have gotten my note. Notes." The tremor had gone to my tongue. So after the game I was wondering if I could buy you a cup of--"

I trailed off, hoping he was disoriented enough by my matted hair and weird smell to have missed this newest line of inquiry. I tried to take a deep breath, but the pneumonia turned it into a small coughing fit. When it ended, he was waiting politely for me to complete my thought. A hundred drinks flashed through my mind. Root beer? Gin? Hemlock?

"Coffee," I concluded.

The CEO of Starbucks looked at me askance and contemplated his next move.

A few months earlier, I'd had this idea. A really good idea, which was as much of a surprise to me as anyone. Starbucks was the nation's Third Space, where people of all ages gathered daily not just for coffee but to talk, read, listen to music and work on their computers. It prided itself on community, contemplation and creativity and was always looking to reinforce the bond between company and customer. What better way, I thought, than by creating a quarterly anthology of short stories written by Starbucks customers for Starbucks customers?

Lex Luthor couldn't have hatched a better plan. Due to its omnipresence, Starbucks is the only entity in the world immune to the debilitating overhead that plagues the publishing industry. Consider that distribution and display costs alone allow Barnes & Noble or Borders to swallow half a book's profits, forcing publishers to focus their efforts on a few big-name writers; those who can't immediately generate a huge readership are effectively locked out. By eliminating the middleman, Starbucks could not only turn a huge profit--leaving room to donate (and write off) some proceeds to its literacy programs--but it could also hit the cutting edge of literature. And with short fiction, each story lasts just long enough for the reader to enjoy a good cup of coffee.

I wrote up a kick-ass business proposal. The title: "Written@Starbucks." It was October 2004.

I went to the company website. "Thank you for your interest in Starbucks . . . we are interested in new ideas, technology and products," it announced. I shuddered. No doubt, once I got this into the right hands it would spiral out of control. I wondered if they'd fly me up to Seattle in Howard's private jet.

"While we are happy to consider these," the site continued, "we cannot promise to keep any proposals, ideas or materials confidential. We cannot promise to compensate you for using them and we cannot promise that we will not . . . [use] your idea or a similar idea."

Clearly I needed to speak to someone. "Sheila," I said to the customer-service woman, "I need to speak with someone about my idea."

"Certainly, sir," she replied. "Thank you for reaching out to Starbucks. We are interested in new ideas, technology--"

"No," I said. "You don't understand. This idea is different. It's about people coming together and expressing themselves and discovering the unique greatness that each holds within. It can change the direction of your company. I just need to speak with someone who can help. It's important, Sheila, you need to help me. I'm begging you. Please."

She paused. Was she looking up the appropriate department's number? Or radioing for someone to fuel the jet? "While we are happy to consider these," she finally said, "we cannot promise to keep any ideas confidential or to compensate--"

And so it went. Blocked at every turn, the message was always the same: They'd love to hear my idea, but Starbucks couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't take my proposal and leave me in its dust. Discouraged, I let a month go by, then another, returning to the dreary life wherein my work, my coffee and my reading remained separate entities.

Then one day, a friend recommended a book, "Pour Your Heart Into It." The story of a kid from the projects who followed his dreams, persevered in the face of enormous resistance and never, ever allowed himself to be turned away from his goals. I read it in one night. If you believe in your idea, it insisted, you should never cease in your quest to achieve it. The book was right: I could do anything I wanted. After all, the author had turned a simple coffee store into one of the most recognized franchises in the world.

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