Sound and Fury, Signifying Crappy Coffee: Burger King to Carry SBUX Products

Yesterday, Burger King and Starbucks announced that the fast-food purveyor would be brewing up Starbucks’ Seattle’s Best Coffee sub-brand in its stores in 7,250 stores.

This represents BK’s first major coffee-oriented change in strategy in about five years, as Burger King rolled out its “BK Joe” coffee near the end of 2005.

You know what? BK Coffee was no good prior to that, was no good after that, and will, as best as I can prognosticate, continue to be a coffee of thrift and expediency rather than quality even after slapping a “Seattle’s Best” label on it.

Of course, it will be cheap — the company’s announcement puts the suggested retail price at a range of $1 to $2.79 — probably representing “small-size drip” through “complicated shake-like thing,” which promises incorporate “optional vanilla or mocha flavor and whipped topping,” whether hot or iced.

Aside from the obvious comparisons — like how my assessment of the McDonald’s McCafe Mocha (“cloyingly sweet”) will be echoed in the competition’s offerings — there’s likely to be little-to-no improvement in flavor. Here’s why. The three primary determinants of getting a good cup of coffee are the beans, the water, and the preparation. Let’s take these factors one at a time.

Look, I generally like Seattle’s Best; I’ve been a mild fan since before the Starbucks acquisition back in 2003. And at a Seattle’s Best store, you can be sure the beans are pretty freshly roasted and ground to brew (whether drip or espresso).

This is Burger King. I can near-guarantee that the coffee will come pre-ground, that the stores by and large will sit on old beans for weeks, and would guess that the coffee, already diluted in flavor by these two factors, will sit around in the kitchen, heaps of it pre-poured into filters, waiting for the next brew cycle. The light, heat, and odors of the Burger King work environment will not do this already-compromised coffee any favors.

The Water
Brewed coffee is mostly . . . what now? Water! And if you use crappy water, even if the beans are of the highest quality and freshly roasted, you’ll get crappy coffee.

I understand that it’s ridiculous to expect reverse-osmosis-processed water at all retail establishments, let alone fast food, but consider this: have you ever asked for a cup of water at Burger King (or any fast food establishment for that matter)? How did it taste?

By and large, I expect the water to be of dubious quality. And you can’t put poor water into a coffeemaker and expect good coffee in return.

Even in fine restaurants, coffee is an afterthought to the staff. They have so much to worry about — food prep, running the register, ensuring timely service, etc. It stands to reason that careful attention to proper brewing will not be the norm at a Burger King establishment.

Will the equipment be checked to ensure a proper brewing temperature of near 200 degrees? Will the staff have the leisure to even smell the coffee to make sure it’s up to standards? Will they be able to switch out old pots with new to ensure freshly brewed stuff is getting to customers, rather than something that’s been sitting around all day?

In an establishment like a local specialty coffee shop, yes, of course. In a Starbucks or Seattle’s Best, yeah, it’s very likely as well. But in a fast food joint? C’mon.

Un-Sound Bites

“We believe everyone should be able to get a great cup of coffee,” said Michelle Gass, president of Seattle’s Best Coffee in a prepared statement.

That’s a nice thought; a notion any coffee lover should get behind. But this deal with Burger King is not the way to enact that pipe dream.

The real point of this deal: Starbucks gets to extend its Seattle’s Best brand awareness without a detrimental effect on its main brand. For Burger King, in the end, this is merely a branding effort. Of course, with BK’s massive media reach and advertising budget, it’ll probably drive some business.

But, if there’s any noticeable difference between BK’s version of Seattle’s Best and the BK Joe product, it will be a negligible one. What Burger King is doing, in coffee quality terms, is changing the window dressing.


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