Starbucks CEO Seeks to Improve Service—for Baristas

Starbucks CEO Seeks to Improve Service—for Baristas
Starbucks CEO Seeks to Improve Service—for Baristas


Laxman Narasimhan, who took over from Howard Schultz this year, is trying to mend the fractured relationship between workers and headquarters.

Banks of cubicles and walkways separate Starbucks’s senior executive offices and the nearest cafe in the company’s Seattle headquarters. To Laxman Narasimhan, that is too far.

Distance between the executives who direct Starbucks’s corporate policy and the day-to-day trench warfare of serving Frappuccinos has left many of the chain’s 248,000 U.S. store workers fed up with senior management, demoralized and quick to quit. Short-staffed cafes saddled with unreliable equipment and rising quantities of online orders have contributed to clogged drive-throughs and long cafe lines. Baristas’ frustrations have fueled a unionization drive now entering its third year.

Narasimhan says he gets it. Since taking the reins as CEO in March, he is working to boost store staffing levels, personally directing the revamp of problematic cafes and tackling spotty store inventories. At Starbucks’s headquarters, he is holding monthly get-togethers with rank-and-file workers, encouraging them to air frustrations. His ambition is to heal the relationship between the chain’s baristas and its corporate offices, which is hindering Starbucks despite record sales.

The coffee chain generated $3.3 billion in profit in its 2022 fiscal year, but its relationship with workers poses a challenge as it seeks to expand. Turnover increased after the pandemic in ways that Starbucks said it had never before experienced. The company needs to retain existing workers and attract new ones as it aims to open about 18,400 stores by 2030.

Starbucks has vowed to spend $1 billion on higher wages and expanded benefits for workers, but some baristas have pinned their hopes on organizing to collectively demand better terms. Over the past two years, about 360 of its 9,380 U.S. cafes have voted to join the Starbucks Workers United union, and the group has filed more than 600 complaints against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

Now, Narasimhan has more elbow room to make changes. Howard Schultz, Starbucks’s longtime leader who in 2022 came out of retirement to temporarily run the chain, left the company’s board in September. The company said he would hold no operational or fiduciary roles.

In an internal message after Schultz stepped down, Narasimhan said he looked forward to advancing his work to “refound Starbucks," with a new mission.

When Starbucks launched its search for a new CEO, its board wanted someone who could pinpoint where things went wrong with its workforce and a hands-on operator who could restore the relationship.

Narasimhan, then CEO of Lysol maker Reckitt Benckiser Group, initially hesitated when Starbucks came calling. He wondered about diving into a complex new company so quickly after the Covid-19 pandemic, and about the role of Schultz, who Starbucks in 2022 tapped as CEO—for a third time.

Starbucks promised Narasimhan he would have latitude to make changes, and proposed a way to steep him in the chain’s sprawling operations: For around six months he would train as a barista and work in stores. That seasoning period would run almost five times as long as the average transition time for external CEO hires last year, according to leadership consulting firm Spencer Stuart.

Narasimhan’s first day tying on an apron at a Starbucks in Mineola, N.Y., last October gave him a taste of the learning curve. Eager to jump into making lattes, his trainer, Sandy Roberts, told him no: “We’re going to slow down and we’re going to experience it all," she said. First he had to taste the chain’s coffees, Roberts explained, part of the immersion Starbucks required of new baristas.

When Narasimhan later offered up his first latte to Roberts, she handed it back. Too light, she said; make it again. He did.

As he learned the way Starbucks requires baristas to dispense whipped cream and wash out buckets, Narasimhan was ahead of much of Starbucks’s C-suite. In November 2022 the company gathered senior executives at a company coffee farm in Costa Rica to discuss Starbucks’s future, and how to get its stores running better. Schultz told them that out-of-touch leadership was part of the problem.

“Is there anyone in this room who can go with me to an espresso machine and make a latte?" Schultz said, according to a recording of the meeting that was viewed by The Wall Street Journal. “I don’t think we can fix the systemic problem with the level of lofty knowledge that exists in this room."

Starbucks’s baristas have complained that executives are out of touch with the struggles they face. Workers have been frustrated by expanding cafe procedures, long lines and demanding customers—problems that became worse as the pandemic made it harder to fully staff stores.

Michael Mueller, a Starbucks barista of six years who helped organize a union at his store in Cary, Ill., said at peak times most baristas can’t create layered Frappuccinos like the Caramel Ribbon Crunch and iced shaken espressos as quickly as the chain asks.

“They’ve added menu items that take a lot longer, but they still want drive-through times to be low," said Mueller.

Working in cafes last winter, Narasimhan got a firsthand look. He had an egg bite explode in front of a customer, and burned his hand scraping cheese off a sandwich. Filling a latte to the cup’s brim, he criticized himself for not leaving room for cream. He forgot how to ring up customers paying with credit cards.

Those missteps could be corrected with training and experience. As he traveled to Starbucks locations across the U.S., Narasimhan saw deeper, more systemic challenges. In Texas, he repeatedly apologized to customers after that store ran out of breakfast sandwiches. While working a Chicago drive-through in March, the cafe manager called out how long it was taking to process each order, a reminder of the pressure on baristas and the challenge of keeping the lines moving. He saw store storage spaces haphazardly laid out, costing workers time and energy as they hustled for supplies.

Vida Joyce Coz, a 24-year Starbucks barista who helped train Narasimhan in the espresso bar and drive-through in a Houston-area cafe, said he wanted to understand what she did when the store ran out of hot cups, or the ovens stopped working, and what the company should do about it.

After a shift in the Chicago store, Narasimhan asked employees for their feedback. Understand the impact your decisions will have on employees, they told him. Don’t lose touch with the stores and help workers manage better during peak times.

“Having worked as a partner, it’s clear to me that there are things that we need to do," Narasimhan said in an interview.

The Starbucks Workers United union says that Narasimhan should give priority to negotiations with newly unionized workers versus spending his time working in cafes. The union in May tried to speak to Narasimhan about signing an agreement to respect their right to organize, but he walked away, according to a social-media post.

Mueller, the Illinois barista, said he has noticed some improvement in his store’s staffing, but he said Narasimhan’s time in the cafes was more of a “photo opp" than substantive.

Narasimhan said that over recent months Starbucks has been assigning more staffing to its cafes, though the company has more work to do. Barista pay and benefits are up 20% on average in the past year, and Narasimhan said he plans to boost employee perks further.

He is working to cut the number of emails and other communications the chain sends to stores by more than half, addressing another complaint. He aims to get more breakfast sandwiches to stores and wants to redesign the bags holding Starbucks’s Sous Vide Egg Bites, which baristas can have a hard time opening. He continues to work in cafes monthly.

Since officially stepping into the CEO role this past spring, he has hosted monthly informal conversations with workers on different floors of the company’s Seattle headquarters. Instead of standing on a stage, Narasimhan takes a chair and arranges others around him.

In one session, an intern asked whether Narasimhan would work a shift in the office’s cafe, and the CEO agreed. After another employee asked whether the company would resume taking employee questions during virtual meetings, Starbucks did. “For us to succeed, there has to be no egg shells," Narasimhan said.

Write to Heather Haddon at

Starbucks CEO Seeks to Improve Service—for Baristas
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Starbucks CEO Seeks to Improve Service—for Baristas
Starbucks CEO Seeks to Improve Service—for Baristas
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Starbucks CEO Seeks to Improve Service—for Baristas
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