Making Coffee More Efficient

Minor caveat before we get going here: Yes, I’ve been getting coffee at Starbucks of late. There isn’t a better place for coffee that’s anywhere near my home or work. For those that know me… well, I am sorry.

A long time ago, in a state far, far away I used to be a Barista. Of course back then we didn’t call it “Barista.” We called it “working in a café.”

When I first started, we had a real hard-ass manager. Thankfully.

He’d sit out with the customers and watch us work, every once in a while glancing at his stopwatch. I worked in a place that would often do 2000 drinks in a day. I’ll do the math for you. That’s about 2.5 drinks a minute (on average).

When you are producing 2.5 drinks a minute you can’t have any bottlenecks in the process. Here was the set up with 4 people:

Register This was the person who took the drink orders, took the money, and got the regular coffee (non-espresso) drinks.

Shots This person pulled all the espresso shots, syruped up the cups and told the Milk person what was coming down the line.

Milk This person steamed all the milk, did whipped cream, capped the cups, and was the last customer contact in the process so they were also the “have a good day” person.

Barback Very important position. Kept everything stocked, cleaned tables, dealt with bean orders, washed dishes. Made sure they place runs smoothly. Which is everyone’s job, but particularly the Barback.

Every half hour or so we’d all switch one position down the line so we wouldn’t get bored and to just shake things up. We would also randomly spring into dance, singing Hava Nagila, but that’s another story for another time.

“Interesting.” But…?

Here is where Starbucks comes in…

This morning, I stopped by the Starbucks that’s about half-way between my house and work. I was there for almost 15 minutes. All for a quad Americano.

There were 5 workers behind the counter. One on the register, one doing all the drinks, two taking orders and getting backed goods, and one cleaning tables. As I stood there, I channeled that hard-ass manager, looking for the single point of failure. I found several.

There were 6 people waiting for their drinks ahead of me. There were 7 people waiting in line behind me by the time I ordered and by the time I left there were roughly 20 people in the place, none of whom were sitting at the tables.

Earlier this year, Starbucks shut down for a day to retrain everyone. Quality is important, and whether the Training Day worked in the respect is up for debate, but in a café where your primary customer is a grab-and-go, speed is almost more important than quality.

How to Fix it

The café model I learned from is a good one. But there are some specific factors to take into consideration in any redesign. Start with asking good questions.

Environment Such a key factor when designing a physical space. Where do customers enter? Do they exit the same way? How long can the line be before people are waiting outside? Where do people wait for their drinks?

A café is entirely about Flow. When the Flow breaks down, the customers lose confidence. Confidence in quality and in their ability to get to their next stop on time. You have to take the customer’s goals in mind. If you are building a Café where you want people to sit for hours on end, obviously you are going to make different choices, but here we are talking about speed.

Efficiency Where are the bottlenecks? What blocks you from achieving your goals? What do you lose by completely removing those blocks?

Let’s say instead of keeping me there for 15 minutes you want to keep me there for less than 3 minutes. How can you make that happen?

Effect Okay, so I am enjoying some alliteration here… If you are able to answer the previous questions, you need to know how things are changing. You know how many people you get during the morning rush so you need to keep track how that changes based on the changes you make. This is more of a long-term measurement, but one that needs to be looked at daily.

How much time passes from when I enter the building to when I leave? You have to keep track even if that means someone sits in the corner with a stopwatch.

Great. Now I know how to redesign Starbucks. Thanks.

I am only using Starbucks as an example here. When you start to think in terms of “everything is an interface/interaction” you can do a lot to make things better by applying general Design methods and principles. I think talking in terms of concrete example is the best way (for me at least) to get a point across.

Everything gets designed. How well things are designed usually depends on how good your questions are at the beginning.

What did you design/redesign on your way to work today?


  1. Matt Robin says:

    On my way to work today, I redesigned the road layout (in my head) so that it got me from point A to point B in the fastest way possible! ;)

    I also thought it would be good if my car was a bit quicker, and if there were less other drivers on the road (especially the ones who don’t know what they’re doing).

    Hey, this was a fun little article – you know that I’m a coffee fan, so I can appreciate this.

    I’ve never worked in a coffee place, so I didn’t know that all those roles had names (I still like the term ‘Coffee Bitch’! Hehe!)

  2. Matthew Oliphant says:

    You can redesign those things all you want, but one constraint you’ll have to deal with: You can never go faster than what’s in front of you. :)

  3. Matt Robin says:

    That’s true, until you overtake ’em!
    Surely, the ability to ‘go around’ perceived obstacles is a crucial factor in progressive design too? ;)

  4. Matthew Oliphant says:

    In this world, there’s always someone or something in front of you.

    Unless you drive through Nebraska at night.

  5. Matt Robin says:

    >>”Unless you drive through Nebraska at night.”

    O’gawd, the emptiness and boring, straight roads!!…. ;)

    Actually, my response was one of amusement, but it also accidentally highlights that maybe we want those obstacles and design challenges – isn’t that what makes it interesting to us in the first place?

    Now, revisit that mismanaged Starbucks…would it really seem as interesting if it was completely perfect and running like clockwork? The cafe’s failings gave you an opportunity to exercise your design-thinking! :)

  6. Laurie says:

    I love Starbucks… I have stopped there everyday for the past three weeks for my seasonal favorite– pumpkin spice frappucino lite. If I had my way (and any power over Starbucks) I’d make it a year-round treat! :)

  7. Natalie Jost says:

    I’m imagining a very lengthy question session God had with himself before designing humanity.

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