A few weeks ago in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section there was a great piece by Susan Dominus on the Starbucks aesthetic embodied in the CDs and DVDs it sells. That aesthetic, according to both Starbucks executives and customers quoted in the story, is built around the notions of community, inspiration, discovery, and, of course, quality. I'm not ashamed to admit that I buy into this aesthetic. I think the CDs on sale at Starbucks are usually good and interestingly chosen. And I am a music freak. In fact, I wrote about music for ten years before I started writing about food, and I have 2,000 CDs in my collection.
But can you apply these aesthetic values to the food served at Starbucks? Say, to the breakfast sandwiches it now serves at 1,100 Starbucks locations in eight markets? I'm a food guy now, so that's what I want to know.
The first thing you notice when you're waiting in line to order is the stack of breakfast sandwiches in the pastry case right next to the bagels and croissants. These sandwiches are there for display purposes only. There are five on view: sausage, egg, and cheese; pepper bacon, egg, and cheese; sun-dried tomato, ham, egg, and cheese; reduced-fat turkey bacon, egg, and cheese; and eggs Florentine, made with spinach, eggs, and cheese.
When you order one, however, your barista retrieves an already cooked and assembled shrink-wrapped sandwich from a refrigerator and heats and crisps it in a combination microwave-convection oven. Your barista then puts it into a bag and seals it with a sticker that articulates the newfound Starbucks food aesthetic: "Great coffee deserves great food."
Unfortunately there's nothing "great" about the Starbucks breakfast sandwiches. In fact, they are only marginally edible. Egg sandwiches can't even attain "pretty good" status when they're not made fresh to order like they are at hundreds of delis and coffee shops in and around New York City.
I was curious about the genesis of the Starbucks breakfast sandwich. A Starbucks spokesperson explained that the breakfast sandwiches are the product of a lengthy R&D process by a team of "certified" chefs at Starbucks headquarters. These chefs were charged with developing homey breakfast sandwiches using high-quality ingredients that could be heated and served to the customers within the tight real estate confines of a typical Starbucks store. Consistency and high quality were the cornerstones of this initiative.
The chefs knew that no cooking ever takes place in a Starbucks, so that these sandwiches would have to be cooked and assembled in a central location and delivered to each store daily. The breakfast sandwiches, unlike the coffee Starbucks built its business on (made daily before our eyes by remarkably friendly baristas), come from two distribution centers across the country.
Eggs are not made to be cooked in one spot and shipped to another to be eaten. But given the set of constraints these chefs were working within, Starbucks had no choice but to sell heat-and-serve items.
This dooms these breakfast sandwiches. Because what Starbucks ends up serving is a slightly more upscale version of the same scary things we can also buy at 7-Eleven, McDonald's, and every gas station on interstates all across America. These are convenience foods for the latte set (which includes me). Eggs cooked in one place and shipped to another to be served are doomed to slab, loaflike status. In fact, I found the best way to eat a Starbucks breakfast sandwich is to discard the egg loaf slice and eat the rest.
The breakfast sandwiches at Starbucks fly in the face of the often admirable Starbucks aesthetic. Until Starbucks decides to either forgo cooked food or puts kitchens into each store, its food initiative is doomed, no matter how much spinach or fontina cheese or pepper bacon it put in its breakfast sandwiches.
So when you get that hankering for an egg sandwich, head to your local deli, coffee shop, or any place that actually cooks the sandwiches to order. That's a basic food aesthetic all of us can get behind.