Starbucks VP on Working With Howard Schultz to Execute Ideas

By Patricia Riedman Yeager |  April 27, 2015

Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks, had a vision that he’d been developing for a decade. He wanted to create a shrine to coffee in Seattle, the company’s hometown, where visitors could learn about the bean and the beverage, immerse themselves in the Starbucks brand, and watch as it “rained coffee beans.” One of Schultz’s inspirations? Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Liz Muller, the Vice President of Creative and Global Design at Starbucks

It was a high-stakes, high-pressure project for the $16 billion, 44-year old company. And making it happen fell to Liz Muller, the Vice President of Creative and Global Design at Starbucks. She admits that as a native of Holland, she wasn’t familiar with Mr. Wonka when her boss first referenced the fictional confectioner.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room opened its doors in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in December. The Roastery is the flagship store for the company’s new Starbucks Reserve brand, a line of small-batch coffee, which will be available in more than 1,500 stores globally this year, and also through a new subscription program. But it’s also an immersive sensory experience — populated by some of the company’s top baristas — that forces consumers to reevaluate how they think about Starbucks.

Starting this year, the company also has plans to open at least 100 stores spotlighting its Reserve brand of rare, small-lot coffee, starting with locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. And the company is planning other large-format stores like the Roastery & Tasting Room in other U.S. and Asia-Pacific cities, as well.

During last month’s Field Study in Seattle, Muller described some of the challenges she faced in bringing Schultz’s idea to life. She also appears with Schultz in the video below.

‘It’s about a Single Vision’

When Schultz first described the project to Muller, she says his idea for the project was for the 15,000-foot reclaimed 100-year-old space to resemble a Wonka-inspired coffee factory that would educate customers about rare coffee, and also touch them on an emotional level. He wanted the coffee to move around the space via tubes, and for it to “rain coffee beans” into the various silos around the building, as beans moved through the production cycle. Schultz told her, “It’s got to be about seduction.”

After touring some cafes in Europe, she and her team sketched out the plan for the Roastery. The building was completed in less than a year, and at one point had 188 construction workers laboring 24/7. “In 44 years, we’d never built anything like this,” Muller says.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery. Photo Joe Mabel.

The completed space includes two industrial roasting machines, which can roast over a half ton of coffee per hour. A hand-hammered copper coffee silo towers over the Roastery, and nearby baristas offer customers samples of coffee using several different brewing methods. The building also pays homage to Starbuck’s coffee growers: At night, five panels of “smart glass” frost over and video footage from life on a Starbucks coffee farm in Costa Rica plays, visible to outside passersby.

Even the stitching on window curtains echoes the patterns that coffee growers use to stitch closed burlap bags of coffee.

Sometimes, You Need to Skip the Focus Groups

Did Starbucks test the concept first with consumers? Nope, Muller says. “We wanted to give experiences and surprises to people who didn’t expect it,” she says, “and push them further than people would ever feel comfortable.”

Muller says pulling off the project wasn’t easy, and that she had to deal with naysayers who balked at the ambitious goals Starbucks had set out. The old building had to be reinforced structurally to support the massive roasters. She says they discovered in the construction phase that the building needed additional power, too. And in the middle of construction, a downpour hit and the drains were blocked off. “We had a river pour into this building. I didn’t think we’d recover, but we did. Some nights I smoked a cigar. Those were dark moments.”

In the end, she advises, “you need to believe in yourself, and pick your players well, because it’s all about collaboration. It can be done.”

Appeal to All the Senses

Extensive thought went into creating a completely enveloping experience, from how the stitching on the leather handrails felt to the smells, sights, and sounds of the Roastery. Even the acoustics are important, she says, with padding muffling the sound of the roasters, while different music plays in various rooms to reflect the different intended moods. “It has to touch all the senses,” Muller says.

Overall, she says, the intended effect of the building “needs to be magical, unique. There are elements of this around the world — but nothing like this. We’ve elevated it from a store to club. This has a halo effect across the brand.”