Zillow Speaker Series: Starbucks’ Cliff Burrows

The Brit who runs the Americas for the coffee chain talks about getting close to the bean, improving the food and starting coffee delivery.

Posted in

You can’t take the coffee out of the techies.

Cliff Burrows, Starbucks’ group president for the U.S., Americas and Teavana, recently visited Zillow’s Seattle headquarters, where he shared his company’s mission statement and details about its worldwide domination of the cafe business — the importance of standardization, throughput metrics and routines.

But it was coconut milk that drew the most cheers.

The upcoming addition of coconut milk will further complicate Starbucks’ already tangled menu, which now has four types of milk and drink combinations topping 100,000. But it’s what the people want, and Starbucks will not deny them.

When the chain tried to stop offering eggnog lattes in some parts of the country at the holidays, Burrows said, “you’d have thought we were stealing puppies.” So the company brought it back.

Similarly, Starbucks tailors its menu to tastes in certain regions, for example offering coffee jelly Frappuccinos in Japan and red bean and green tea Frappuccinos in China.

But there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that customers do not see, and mistakes that have been made, especially around food.

A native of Great Britain who grew up in Zambia, Burrows joined Starbucks in 2001 as the head of its United Kingdom business. He then added the rest of Europe, plus the Middle East and Africa before being tapped as the head of its beleaguered U.S. business. He oversaw the closure 800 stores here before the numbers started to improve. Now, Starbucks’ revenues and store counts are growing again, including in the Americas.

Unlike most giant coffee purveyors, Burrows said, Starbucks has robust programs for staying close to the farms that fuel its business. It has agronomists in coffee-growing countries who work with growers to improve their crops, and in 2013 it bought a small coffee farm in Costa Rica for research and learning.

Burrows admitted that Starbucks has struggled with the quality of its food but touted its relatively new bakery brand, La Boulange, along with Evolution Fresh juices and the Teavana chain.

He also talked about the success of Starbucks’ mobile offerings, which are expanding to include mobile orders and delivery.

But he seemed especially proud of the chain’s new roastery and tasting room on Capitol Hill in Seattle. The store has five different types of espresso, coffee made with the Clover Brewing System, manual and automatic pour-overs and siphoned coffee. “So, plan your day around it,” Burrows said.

His favorite drink? In the morning, Burrows drinks a double-tall, non-fat, bone-dry cappuccino. In the afternoon, a doppio espresso.

To hear more speakers like Burrows in person, check out Zillow’s job page; we’re hiring!

Photo: Adam Cohn

Recent Zillow speakers include:

See all Zillow Speaker Series guests here.