Tuesday, September 16, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: There is No Free Breakfast

by Jaime

Last week I got the chance to represent CHG at the Starbucks Better Breakfast Hour, a blogger event described to us as “the opportunity to chat with other bloggers about breakfast trends and the importance of starting off your morning with a healthy routine,” but, let’s be honest, I saw as, “ooh, free breakfast and maybe I’ll meet Adam Roberts.”

Adam Roberts wasn’t there but Ed Levine was! And he was awesome. And there was also a lot of breakfasty food to try and good conversation on healthy vs. healthier, and a lot of me thinking about marketing. And I got a free Americano. (The thing about Starbucks generously upgrading your tall Americano to a grande is that while that’s nice and all, it also means you’re getting double the caffeine! Woo!)

The caffeine high’s worn off by now, though, so let’s look at Starbucks’ “healthy” breakfast options. I don’t know how many of you go into Starbucks with any regularity – while delicious and convenient, it’s rarely healthy or cheap – but if you’ve been in, you’ve probably seen these new residents of the bakery case. As they made their way around our Better Breakfast Hour Table, I took a judicious sampling of each (and photos!).

The Apple Bran Muffin is a little too sweet (and I like sweet!) but decently tasty, with big, juicy raisins outnumbering apple pieces.

The Berry Stella, despite a promising name and shape, is dry and disappointing, though real fresh berries on top are a nice, tart touch.

The Chewy Fruit & Nut Bar is a decent chewy granola bar thing.

The Perfect Oatmeal is oatmeal. The topping options – dried berries, mixed nuts, brown sugar – are all tasty, but instant oatmeal is instant oatmeal, and I’d rather make it at home for 35 cents.

Starbucks also offers a Protein Plate, comprising a small whole wheat bagel, a hardboiled egg, some grapes and apple slices, a piece of cheese, and peanut butter. I didn’t taste it, but it looks like one of the more legitimately healthy options, with fruit and protein and healthy fats. I was frustrated that the other “healthy options” were just healthified versions of the usual sugar-bombs. I’m all for the occasional sugar-bomb, don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather splurge for a brownie than think that adding inulin and whatever sort of protein to a muffin makes it something other than a muffin.

That’s when I got thinking about marketing. One of the Starbucks representatives said something like, “We wanted to come up with healthy, wholesome foods.” But what I really think was going on was, “We want to come up with foods that we can market as healthy.” They’re not lying about anything – the apple muffin is lower in calories than other muffins, all of these foods are free of artificial sweeteners, and those are good things. But take for example the Multigrain Roll. It is, in the brave words of Ed Levine, “just a bad roll.” But is there something about a dry whole grain roll covered in mysterious, exotic seeds that makes you feel like you’re eating something healthy? “Oh,” we think to ourselves, “this must be better for me than the muffin. It’s not sweet! It’s not fun!” And then we feel like we’ve eaten something healthy.

But would any manufacturer who is actually concerned about health add sugar to almond butter? I actually can’t begin to parse the motives behind that one small action, but it’s been worrying away at my brain. I was so excited that almond butter was an option. Starbucks could’ve copped out with a squeeze packed of peanut butter, but they went the healthier and more exciting route. And then added maple syrup.

The conversation around the table was pretty split between the mom-bloggers and the foodies. (There was also a fitness blogger/personal trainer, but I didn’t hear much from her.) The moms were psyched for the healthier options for them and their kids – convenience and “better than pound cake” ruled. The foodies’ discerning palates were not pleased with Starbucks’ new creations.

I was somewhere in between. Some of the food – hi, Multigrain Roll, I’m looking at you – wasn’t worth eating, but some was tasty, and a healthier option than other Starbucks fare. But I keep coming back to healthy (what Starbucks is calling the new menu) versus healthier. If I want healthy, I want real, whole foods, eggs and bananas and vegetables. And it’s the fantastic bonus that those foods, when they come from my kitchen, are cheap, too! I could assemble my own version of Starbucks’ protein plate for probably a tenth of the cost.

What do you think? When does convenience win out for you? Do you want healthier food at Starbucks, or a decadent chocolate brownie?


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