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Originally published February 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 27, 2008 at 3:12 PM

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Starbucks retraining goes down smoothly

It would be hard to guess which part of Tuesday night's retraining session was more fun for the baristas who work at the Starbucks atop...

Seattle Times business reporter

It would be hard to guess which part of Tuesday night's retraining session was more fun for the baristas who work at the Starbucks atop Queen Anne.

They pulled espresso shots, foamed milk and wrote drink orders on the sides of cups — all part of a regular workday for baristas. But during Tuesday's three-hour session, they examined their work from many angles and laughed a lot.

"I'm sweet and bubbly, like my foam," joked Annie Snyder, a supervisor, when it was her turn to foam milk. A co-worker retorted, "That's better than being dense and creamy."

They were among 135,000 Starbucks employees retrained at 7,100 U.S. Starbucks stores from 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, part of Howard Schultz's plan to improve the company's U.S. sales and stock price.

Starbucks will not say how much the training cost, but the company has gotten priceless publicity for this and other moves since Schultz reclaimed the job of chief executive last month.

Newspapers and broadcasters nationwide made a huge deal out of Starbucks' decision last month to test $1 drip coffee — a roughly 50-cent discount — at some Seattle-area stores.

Baristas started moving customers out at 5:30 p.m., but those on Queen Anne could walk across the street to get a fix at Peet's Coffee & Tea or Tully's Coffee.

Another half-block farther and they could order a Starbucks drink until 7:30 p.m., when the shop inside Safeway closed. Employees will be trained later at 4,000-odd U.S. stores that are licensed to do business with Starbucks in supermarkets, airports and elsewhere.

A TV crew stood outside the locked doors of the Queen Anne store getting footage of employees inside and a sign on the door that read, "We're taking time to perfect our art of espresso."

Inside, more than 20 Starbucks employees, including people from its Seattle headquarters office, talked about coffee and customer service.

"The perfect espresso is like honey pouring from a spring," a video message told employees.

When the video demonstrated improper milk foaming with big, noisy bubbles, one barista lamented, "That's sooo sad."

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They talked as a group and split into teams that moved around the store practicing making drinks and role-playing customer interactions. Several times, employees said they wanted to have the same warm relationship with customers that they have with each other.

They seemed to appreciate the training, both for camaraderie and what they learned.

"I like that we all came together at one time," Snyder told her co-workers. "Now we're at the same point and we're not going to say, 'It just works easier for me if I steam my milk this way.' "

They also like that Starbucks seems to be focusing more on drink quality than speed.

"That's not to say that speed's not important but, yeah, we have to refocus," manager Kelli Heigh-Foster told the group.

Starbucks has not fundamentally changed the way it makes drinks, although the training covered a few tweaks since Schultz became CEO again: Never re-steam milk, use shot glasses rather than pouring espresso directly into a cup, and pour double shots for better flavor even when only one shot is needed.

"If that beverage is not good enough, please pour it out," Schultz told them in a video clip. "Let's measure our actions by that perfect shot of espresso."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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