Pastry blues

by Eszter Hargittai on April 28, 2005

Kieran’s recent analysis of Timberites’ blogging habits showed that one of my main contributions around here is in the area of trivia. (In a more generous or delusional moment one may call it the “other” or “interesting tidbits” category, but I digress.) So to live up to my role around here, I thought I would post an entry about the unfortunate downturn in the life of what used to be the wonderful Starbucks espresso brownie bar.

I don’t drink coffee so Starbucks holds limited appeal to me. I am also not fooled by most of their pastries, which tend to look good, but usually do not measure up in taste. There is one exception, however: their espresso brownie bar. It is great! Unfortunately, in the past few months they have added a nearly tasteless fudge on top. The bar in general seems to have gotten smaller and this may be a way to distract from that and put less quality chocolate in the product. Suffice it to say that it is a really bad innovation (if you can even call it that). They have pretty much ruined an extremely good pastry. Yes, I can get dramatic when it comes to chocolate. I do not like people messing with a good chocolate product.

It turns out that you can still get the fudgeless type in other markets, however. During my recent travels I noticed them at various airports. Maybe introducing the new version in some markets is their way of experimenting to see if the change holds up. If you would like to join my campaign [1] to help save a perfectly good pastry then please send the company a note by filling out this form on their Web site. Espresso brownie enthusiasts will thank you.

1. I will keep you posted regarding tax-deductible donations to the cause as the movement progresses.



hope 04.28.05 at 10:09 pm

For a place with such good coffee, they have terrible food. I have yet to eat a Starbuck’s pastry that I liked.


Kamala 04.28.05 at 11:54 pm

When Starbucks began, they used to argue that the pastry was a true part of the overall experience, and the executives would give a fair bit of time to deciding what pastries suited their image, what tastes they should go for etc.

The original Brownie is a hangover from those days. Unfortunately, as the coffee house market became more competitive, they decided to focus on the beans, and less on the sugar. The thought being ‘with coffee this good, who needs fudge?’.

But we do need fudge, and the movement must begin!


Christopher M 04.29.05 at 12:57 am

I know their sandwiches & drink selection vary from city to city. Are their pastries generally standardized, apart from the minor variation Eszter mentioned?


lakelobos 04.29.05 at 6:52 am

In the presence of irrelevance, trivia is refreshing.

I find their coffee too acidic and low on taste. Pastries, according to NIH, are the enemy of fat people, so I stay away from them (particularly this Matza week).

Hey, it takes exactly 5 minutes to make great coffee at home.


goesh 04.29.05 at 6:57 am

The pastry in the Starbucks here is superb! They have a large variety, it is always fresh, wonderful texture and taste. The price is a bit high but not extreme


Eszter 04.29.05 at 7:18 am

Lakelobos – is it okay to blog about pastry even if it’s Matzah week?:) My Matzah innovation this year is spreading Nutella on it. (As you can tell, the chocolate theme continues.)

As for skipping Starbucks coffee, many financial planning books will tell you that one good way to save the little you need to start investing is to give up on visiting cafes for expensive drinks. So yes, making coffee at home is likely a better bet.

Christopher – I think many of their products are, indeed, quite standardized across markets. That’s what it seemed like to me.

By the way, the St. Patrick’s day special green fudge mint chocolate pastry was also great. Unfortunately, I think it’s only served that time of year. (It’s also proof that they are able to make good fudge so there is no reason for ruining the espresso brownie with a bad addition.)


IF 04.29.05 at 7:54 am

OK, two things.

1) I went to the web site. I expressed my thoughts. Unfortunately, one of my thoughts involved the phrase “our fascist taste Overlords”. I am almost certain that this can not be considered helpful; but, I did try.

2) The recent pastry innovation ’round the DC area is introduction of walnuts and the gradual phasing out of moisture. “mmmm, Cake-y; like dried mud!” So very dry, in fact, one must purchase an additional coffee to wash it all down. And that, my dear friends, is how they “get” you.


Matt 04.29.05 at 8:07 am

My general impression is that it’s impossible to have pastries and other products that are as uniform looking as those at Starbucks w/o their being mass-produced, and that mass-produced backed-goods usually taste about like you’d expect- not very interesting or good. I generally avoid starbucks, finding it over-priced and not that good (there are better options on every front close by to where I am) but when I have eaten their pastries I find that I’m consistently disapointed. (I can’t say anything about the espresso brownie in particular, but their pound cake is bad, and their “Scones” certainly leave something to desire.)


tad brennan 04.29.05 at 9:03 am

There’s got to be someone from the Seattle main office reading this by now, so they can correct me.

But my impression is that Starbucks has contracts with dozens of small-to-medium-size bakeries around the country to produce pastries to their specs.

So, the Starbucks in Wichita gets its pastries from some Wichita bakery which uses Starbucks recipes on Starbucks-approved ingredients (“flour will be a commercial all purpose grade containing between 10%-12% protein”, and so on for every ingredient).

This is less mass-produced than it could be (e.g. they could be baking every single muffin inside a hangar at Sea-Tac airport and flying them all around the world). But some of the regional bakeries will still be large enough for the slur to stick.

This means, on the one hand, that every Starbucks will have something called a cranberry scone, fairly similar in plan and ingredients.

But as you bakers know, it also means that there can be a *lot* of variation in actual quality. And even in the thickness of the fudge.

If a regional baker is falling below specs, then the head office ought to hear about it.


Matt 04.29.05 at 9:09 am

I have to say that I find the pastries to be indistinguishable in the following areas: New York City, Philadelpia, Boise Idaho. I don’t know what that means. My point is that it’s the “making to plan” that’s the problem, perhaps. There is certainly no baker working on these things and thinking, “hmm, that’s a bit bland- better put in some more X” or “that’s too dry- better try more oil” or something. Rather, it’s someone pooring in flour and the like and flicking the switch on an industrial mixer. The taste (and uniformity) show it, it seems.


Cryptic Ned 04.29.05 at 10:00 am

The only good pastry was the Toffee Almond Bar, which seems to no longer exist. It may have been replaced by the Chocolate Marshmallow Chocolate Fudge Walnut Fudge Bar, or whatever that thing’s called.


alex 04.29.05 at 1:10 pm

I’d like to take this opportunity to sing high praises for the Starbuck’s molasses cookie.

I’ll agree with the consensus that most of their “pastries” are horrid abortions — e.g. their croissants are to genuine croissants as the ebola virus is to cuddling with loved ones. But I will actually go out of my way to enjoy one of their delicious molasses cookies: always moist, a little ginger-y, crusted with sugar crystals, pleasantly bitter. Yum.

In Ann Arbor, they’ve been serving little opera cakes, which, if there were a God, would taste like… victory. Instead they have a cloying marshmallow-y taste.

Back to the old dissertation, then…


vivian 04.29.05 at 7:07 pm

their “reduced-fat” apple coffee cake is much better than expected – moist appley and generous slice. Does nothing for the chocolate craving but is a very nice load of unnecessary calories.


Jack Lake 04.30.05 at 12:39 am

My Matzah Brei this year was Sangria Matzah Brei (Sangria instead of water). Your Nutella reminds me of my Galicianer late Mom (oi) putting tons of sugar on Matzah Brei.

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