A video on TikTok this week featured what appeared to be a group of employees screaming in frustration over a list of ingredients the shop had run out of — including sweet cream, white mocha, mango dragon fruit and “every food item.” The caption also said that they were low on cold brew and the “will to live.”
Starbucks is hardly the only company struggling with supply issues. Earlier this spring, ketchup packets became hotter than GameStop stock. Automakers have slowed production because there are not enough computer chips for their vehicles. And homeowners are waiting weeks, if not months, for major kitchen appliances.
But Starbucks is running out of ingredients for Very Berry Hibiscus Refreshers and almond croissants after being one of the clear winners of the pandemic economy. During lockdowns, the coffee chain quickly shifted from its position as a “third place,” where people could linger to work or meet up for long chats, to focusing on frictionless transactions with customers ordering through mobile apps and drive-thrus. Earlier this year, company executives said Starbucks had seen a “full recovery” in U.S. sales, back to prepandemic levels.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Starbucks said the company was experiencing “temporary supply shortages” of some of its products. She said the shortages varied by location, with some stores experiencing “outages of various items at the same time.” She added that the company was working with its vendors to restock the items as soon as possible, and that the supply-chain issues had not affected prices.
Although most people are familiar with the problems in the global supply chain to some extent, some Starbucks customers are still shocked — even incensed — by their inability to get their coffee exactly how they want it. Others laugh it off.
“I was told they couldn’t give me an extra shot of caramel because there was a national shortage,” Nicole Brashear, a 24-year-old pharmacy student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said of ordering an iced caramel macchiato with extra caramel drizzle in late May. “I just sort of laughed and was like, ‘Isn’t caramel just burnt sugar?’”
The problem for Starbucks is that it was never just selling a simple cup of coffee. For many, the experience of visiting the chain is a self-indulgent treat.
Depending on the location, each customer experience will look a bit different according to CDC guidance.
Customers learn the language regarding sizes and special drinks and then share their customized, 12-ingredient drink orders on social media. Many look forward to seasonal specials, like this summer’s Unicorn Cake Pop and Strawberry Funnel Cake Frappuccino, which are available for a limited time.
Orders are not barked out by number like other fast-food chains but rather are announced by name, suggesting customers are friends or are part of the Starbucks club, said Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University and author of “Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks.”
“Starbucks did something remarkable: taking a really ordinary product, coffee, and remaking it as an identifier of class, of culture, of discernment and of knowledge,” Simon said. “Starbucks is a way to communicate something about yourself to other people. While it has become more complicated over time, that drink still says, ‘I deserve a break in my life. I can afford to waste money on coffee.’”
If you are a hospital worker, researcher, paramedic or first responder, you can claim a free coffee from Starbucks as a thank-you for your work fighting the coronavirus.
There were earlier hints that supply issues could be bubbling up for Starbucks. In a late April call with Wall Street analysts, the chief executive of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, voiced some concerns about companies that were part of its supply chain struggling to hire the staff they needed.
“I do anticipate we’ll do a little more to invest and help our supply chain partners, whether it’s staff that they need in manufacturing or staffing that they need for distribution and transportation,” Johnson said.
By late May, customers and baristas were reporting shortages of key ingredients or foods in stores all over the country.
Fred Rogers knew something was wrong right before Memorial Day weekend when he opened his Starbucks app and an alert flashed that the company was experiencing shortages of certain items. He wasn’t able to order his 3-year-old daughter her favorite sandwich — sausage, Cheddar and egg — from his nearby Starbucks in Burlington, New Jersey. His drink, a Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino, was also not available.
“I know if you go after a certain hour that they’re going to be out of some items,” said Rogers, a 33-year-old manufacturing specialist. “But this was 6:45 in the morning.”
Customers may be unhappy, but Simon said the paucity of drinks or food items would likely only increase demand. One of Starbucks’ biggest challenges in recent years has been overexpansion, meaning it has shed some of the uniqueness that once made it special.
“I’m sure there are a lot of heated conversations in Seattle right now about the supply-chain issues, but someone on the branding side is going to be chirping in that the scarcity may not be a bad thing,” Simon said.
Perhaps, but the issues could also be a risk if customers become too frustrated over not being able to get what they want, as they always have. When his daughter couldn’t get her favorite breakfast sandwich at Starbucks, Rogers took her to a nearby Chick-fil-A for breakfast.
And after driving to four Starbucks locations and not getting her favorite drink in late May, Leverette is no longer a regular customer.
“It’s disappointing,” she said. “You go, and you’re waiting in the drive-thru, and you’re only going for one thing and they don’t have what they need to make it.
“I just stopped even bothering to go.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.