Starbucks brews up a recipe for making retail change faster

Partners in green aprons working at lab tables

The Tryer Center at Starbucks focuses on fast innovation, making day-to-day life easier for partners and elevating customer experiences, turning ideas into reality in as little as 100 days.

Traditional retailers now face a daunting array of challenges – from applying new and unfamiliar technologies, to meeting the rapidly evolving needs of customers and their employees, to navigating a retail landscape forever altered by a global pandemic.

Starbucks - whose employees are called “partners” - faces all those challenges and more. At the core of our response is the Tryer Center, an innovation laboratory designed to test innovations and then rapidly scale them on the frontlines of retail, where customer and partner loyalty must be earned every day. In Tryer, the emphasis is on fast innovation, making day-to-day life easier for partners and elevating customer experiences in as little as 100 days.

Named after a piece of coffee-roasting equipment (a “tryer”) used to test whether beans are fully roasted, the Tryer Center is a cross between a laboratory, a design firm, and a dot-com start-up. In a 20,000 square-foot space on the ground floor of the Starbucks Support Center (our Seattle headquarters), you’ll find cross-functional teams of Starbucks partners not only from the Support Center, but from retail stores, as well as senior leaders innovating on everything from products to processes to store designs. The Tryer Center’s moveable walls and working store components on wheels can all be arranged and rearranged in minutes. There’s even a working drive-through window. It is a place where we solve urgent problems, experiment with new technologies and pursue unconventional ideas, without fear of failure.

Hands-on innovation labs have long been common in technology companies, where if you fail to innovate you will soon fall hopelessly behind. Retail is now very much the same. So, we adapted the tech industry lab concept to help our retail company change faster. We believe this approach could be readily emulated to help all of retail change faster.

Wide range of practical innovations

The Tryer Center has hosted hundreds of projects over the past three years, scores of which have been successfully applied in Starbucks stores. Among them are a wide range of practical innovations that a hands-on center can create for the retail environment, including:

Product innovation. Offering new and exciting products has always been a key to engaging consumers. Tryer Center baristas are constantly creating new recipes for our Seattle-based partners to sample. Nitro Cold Brew was a particularly exciting new product that infuses nitrogen to produce a cold, creamy iced coffee without the need for ice. However, we knew roughly 15 percent of our U.S. company-operated stores had space constraints that would prevent the installation of Nitro Cold Brew equipment. A Tryer sprint team jumped on the problem to develop more flexible installation solutions in a simulated store. As a result, Nitro Cold Brew was soon available nationwide at Starbucks U.S. company-operated stores.

Starbucks partner in the Tryer Center wearing a green apron and pouring milk in a cup with coffee and ice

Starbucks is actively developing plant-based food items across our espresso, cold brew, refreshment and food platforms in response to rising customer demand and our company’s commitment to sustainability. In January 2020, a cross-functional team led by R&D and Product built “Rev Kitchen” – a Tryer Center “pop up” experience that gave local partners the opportunity to order from a menu of meatless breakfast sandwiches, gluten-free oatmeal bites, a cauliflower cutlet wrap and other plant-based items, then provide feedback on product, packaging, presentation, preparation and the partner experience. In this way, Tryer Center experiences like Rev Kitchen can significantly compress the time required between product innovation, evaluation and in-store implementation.

Service innovation. COVID-19 social distancing mandates heavily impacted the traditional Starbucks Experience. Our stores have long provided a “third place” community for customers to be between home and work. The pandemic challenged us to honor that heritage while also demonstrating the courage to boldly re-imagine how we serve customers, navigating sudden change in customer needs and priorities, as well as evolving safety recommendations and regulations. To do this, Starbucks relied heavily on work by Tryer to rapidly roll out service models that would work in temporarily closed cafes, prioritizing health and safety for partners and customers.

Fortunately, we had a running start. In 2019, Starbucks operations, digital innovation and design teams worked at Tryer with baristas and store partners to rapidly design and test a new store format, optimized for mobile orders in dense, metro markets. An early prototype delivered a high volume of customer orders but did not give baristas enough space to work. It also limited their ability to interact personally with customers – a core component of the Starbucks Experience. The team embraced that feedback and immediately started over. In November 2019, our company opened the first-ever Starbucks® Pickup store, specifically designed for customers on-the-go, in New York City’s Penn Plaza, using the Starbucks® App as the primary ordering and payment method for customers. This was a great leap forward in diversifying our store portfolio to provide experiences aligned with evolving customer needs. We will go on innovating to blend the traditional sit-and-stay cafe with on-the-go experiences.

Partner Experience. To support operations and design practical and seamless ways of working for stores, Tryer boasts a dedicated group of cross-functional partners, and a rotation of more than 20 partners from retail stores. The team’s efforts are focused on initiatives that improve the partner experience and reduce complexity. Designing partner-focused efforts in a simulated store environment unlock the ability for the company to quickly emulate and solve real-life challenges with practical and effective solutions as a result of collaboration between support center and store partners. Currently, Tryer’s test and learn approach is focused on several initiatives including store engine & station layout redesigns, innovative store equipment and technology, and evolving operational roles and routines for Starbucks stores.

Crisis Response. In March 2020, soon after the burgeoning pandemic forced the temporary closure of ~4,000 company-operated Starbucks stores in the U.S. and Canada, Tryer partnered with our Operation Services team to quickly produce 18 videos that guided partners through the complete shutdown of all store equipment, a task they had never before been asked to complete. Subsequent Tryer Center videos supported store reopening efforts, with a focus on partner safety, to simplify the start-up process for partners. These videos were shot on a smartphone – embracing the Tryer Center’s scrappy style. Equipment engineers and facility team partners remotely supported video production through a Microsoft Teams live stream.

The Tryer Center shaped several other important responses to the COVID crisis:

  • A Tryer team designed, prototyped and tested a plexiglass barrier to place between partners at the bar, proving highly effective in allowing work and interaction while avoiding direct contact. These barrier solutions were also inexpensive and easy for partners to install themselves.
  • Face shields were tested and iterated by Tryer Lab partners to optimize partner comfort.
  • Various store layouts were tested in Tryer to help partners stay safely distanced without hampering their productivity.  

Social Responsibility. Customers and talent alike are increasingly drawn to brands they perceive to be a force for good in the world. This is an expectation Starbucks strives to live up to in ways that go beyond what is expected. In that spirit, Starbucks and several other businesses, including Microsoft and Kaiser Permanente, joined forces with Jay Inslee, governor of Washington state, to establish the Washington State Vaccine Command and Coordination Center (WSVCCC), a public-private partnership to help with vaccine logistics.

In January 2021, a small team from Tryer jumped straight in, visiting early vaccination sites in Seattle and talking to health care workers to better understand how their operations were performing. They found that the pain points in the process were neither technical nor medical, but rather the logistics of people movement, communications, wayfinding and physical design of space – variables in which Starbucks excels at scale every day. Starbucks then used its Tryer Center to simulate vaccination sites that could deliver optimum efficiency, throughput and patient experience.

The resulting insights helped accelerate the operations of several different models for vaccination including vaccination clinics, drive-through clinics and mobile pop-ups to reach people in rural and underserved areas.

Why the Tryer Center works

Mission focus. The Tryer Center is not about innovation for its own sake. We focus on developing and proving out practical ideas that are relevant to our partners, our customers, and our business.

Speed. We’ve gone from a long-cycle approach to innovation to one where our goal is to get from idea to action in just 100 days. That supercharges every project with a sense of urgency.

Hands on. Rather than relying on large teams working in silos, away from the settings where we actually serve customers, we now have small cross-functional teams of partners and leaders who come up with fresh ideas, try them out right away in the Tryer Center’s modular store setting, then rapidly improve on them until they are ready to implement in our stores. 

Openness. Unlike many innovation labs, the Tryer Center is no walled garden. Its staff comes from all across the business, including baristas who split their time between the innovation hub and working behind the counter in stores. Partners around the world can also contribute via Springboard, a Starbucks innovation crowdsourcing website where they can vote on existing projects, make suggestions and offer up new ideas.

Fail safe. Every company says let’s fail fast to gain knowledge, but to do that, you have to create and maintain an environment in which it is psychologically safe for people to fail. The Tryer Center is a place where ideas are free to evolve and collide. This quickly reveals which ideas will actually work best in our stores. 

The result? An innovation platform that can quickly overcome obstacles as they arise, while helping our global retail enterprise change even faster than today’s retail environment.

Natarajan “Venkat” Venkatakrishnan standing outside of Starbucks Headquarters with a cup of coffee in his hand.

Natarajan “Venkat” Venkatakrishnan is Starbucks vice president, Engineering - Equipment, Packaging, Processing and the Tryer Center.

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