Starbucks Corporation vs Black Bear Micro Roastery
During the fall of 1996, one of our customers (a Boston, MA area
retailer) told us that they had been brewing and serving our Country
French blend. They told us that some of their customers were asking
if we had anything that was darker roasted. Country French was our
darkest roast at the time, and we were amazed that Boston area consumers
would be asking for anything darker. New England coffee consumers
traditionally don’t prefer dark roasted coffee.
We had developed our reputation on roasting coffee only to the point
necessary to bring out the full flavor profile that any particular
variety or blend had to offer. Consequently, we were very resistant
to roasting anything darker than our Country French, which we regarded
as very dark.
After months of requests, we finally decided to give them what they
wanted. After all, we are in business and we have a responsibility
to be responsive to our customers. However, we were very nervous
about producing a product that would be such a radical departure
from the rest of our products, even our Country French blend.
We felt a strong, ethical obligation to label the product in a very
distinctive manner that would alert any consumer to be fully aware
of what was in the bag before purchasing it.
The term “Charbucks” had been in widespread usage for many
years all over the United States, but during the early 90s, it was
being used intensively in the Boston, MA area. George Howell, former
owner of the, now non-existent Coffee Connection, had brought it
into prominence in the Boston area.
The Coffee Connection was the most popular coffee roastery in Boston,
and was known, and highly revered, for roasting coffee in a manner
identical to the way we do, that is, not “over roasting”
coffee. George Howell, founder and owner of the Coffee Connection,
regarded Starbucks as the antithesis to what he believed in. By 1994,
the Coffee Connection had expanded to twenty-one retail outlets,
and Starbucks was actively attempting to purchase the chain. Since
George felt so strongly that Starbucks “over roasted” all
of their coffee, he began to refer to Starbucks as “Charbucks”
At the time, the expansion of the Coffee Connection, George had been
expressing concerns about maintaining the quality control that he
believed in. Starbucks finally offered enough money (about twenty-three
million) to George, persuade him to sell the Coffee Connection to
Many Boston area coffee consumers were horrified at the possibility
that Starbucks roasting methods would ruin their cherished Coffee
Connection products. Starbucks had developed a huge following by
roasting coffee considerably darker than many Boston area coffee
connoisseurs felt was reasonable.
In an effort to allay consumer fears, George Howell appeared side
by side with Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, in a news conference
shortly after the deal had been announced. The two assured local
consumers that Starbucks would preserve the integrity of the Coffee
Starbucks proceeded to wipe out any trace of the Coffee Connection
in a matter of a few years, leaving the Coffee Connection devotees
with nothing but a memory. The former customers of the Coffee Connection
were left with a profound sense of betrayal and outrage. Usage of
the term “Charbucks” became an emotional mantra in the
Boston area. We have to assume that George Howell was quite sincere
in his assurances during that news conference, and that he was as
betrayed, as were his former customers. We also cannot assume that
there was any intent at the time, on the part of Starbucks, to do
what they did. Whether one supports their actions or not, any business
has the perfect right to alter its business strategy at any time
During the spring of 1997, it seemed to us that naming our new dark
roasted coffee “Charbucks Blend” could not have been a
more perfect way for us to grab the attention of consumers. Most
of our business was concentrated in New England. It was the “char”
part of the name that we felt was particularly direct and blunt.
We reasoned that no one could possibly purchase the coffee by mistake.
We even added the tag line below the name, which read, “You
wanted dark … you got it dark.”
Since the name was going on our packaging, and since our graphics
bore no similarity whatsoever to Starbuck’s graphics, it seemed
perfectly obvious that no one could possibly be confused into thinking
we were in any way connected to Starbucks. It was also quite obvious
that the extensive use of the term “Charbucks” in the past,
had absolutely no negative affect on the spectacular growth of Starbucks.
How could our “microscopic” use of the term possibly have
any effect on what has been viewed as one of the most spectacular
name recognition success stories ever. The preposterous notion that
we could possibly slowdown the Starbucks “freight train”
simply didn’t occur to us.
It comes down to a matter of the genetic makeup of an individual’s
sensory system. There are very distinct chemical compounds created
when coffee is dark roasted. Individuals differ from one another
when it comes to how these compounds are perceived. One is either
genetically inclined to enjoy the flavor profile created by these
compounds, or just the opposite. There is nothing we can do that
will change the genetic taste preferences of the consuming public.
Starbucks has built a most successful business based on a very sizable
segment of the consuming public that has a taste predilection for
darker roasted coffee. Is Starbucks seriously thinking that we are
going to turn their customers against them? We simply can’t
imagine what actual damage they think we can do to them, and, to
date, they haven’t been forthcoming with what they’re specifically
afraid of. They just want us to do what we’re told.
When we named our new blend “Charbucks Blend”, we were
running a large risk. We were associating our own product with the
perception of charred beans. However, we felt we had to be as honest
with customers as possible. It seemed to us that a clear sense of
humor would be communicated, and would overcome the risk.
Feedback from customers during the past four years has overwhelmingly
confirmed that the sense of humor strategy worked. Every customer
who has commented to us about Charbucks Blend has appreciated the
humorous aspect of the name. Of even more significance, not one single
customer has ever called us and complained about buying a package
of Charbucks Blend by mistake. We have to conclude that our “in
your face labeling” has worked precisely as intended.
Starbucks does not share our views on this matter.