☕ Coffee Journey - Interview

Welcome back to A - Z 2022 and Ultimate Blog Challenge - I am going to use this "Day Off" to refer to Arti's question: 

She said she hoped to read about my job interview with Starbucks because I mentioned I didn't like coffee back then. 

Hahaha, OK, here goes:

First of all, why did I even apply? 

Having lived in Southern California, I always had a soft spot for almost all things American. I was intrigued by the courage and determination of Starbucks to settle down in Switzerland, which was, as I was going to find out, considered a test market because of its cultural diversity. 

They were looking for an experienced and energized German, English and French speaking HR professional wanting to help build up a new market, and that was me! 

Next to ice cream, salmon and salad dressings, my previous job for a fine food company even included coffee, and as such I had visited a coffee roastery, which ended with a coffee tasting, which ended in confirming I did not like coffee ;-)

So my very first interview was a phone call with Wendy, I believe. She worked for the International Recruiting Department at Starbucks' Support Center in Seattle. The Pacific Coast is nine hours behind Western European Time. Meaning I had to stay up until 11pm to receive her call. 

I did not expect coffee related questions, and I was right about that.

I think she mainly wanted to listen to my English speaking skills and ask about my previous job experience.

The next step was going to be a meeting with Rochelle. She was the Head of HR for the EMEA markets at the time. EMEA stands for Europe, Middle East and Africa. I was told to meet her at Zurich Airport, at the café closest to passport control. So I was prepared to decline coffee in case she wanted to buy me one. I was going to say I didn't drink anything else than Starbucks ;-)

She had other things to worry about than my beverage preferences. She had to make sure I was a good cultural fit, and I think she was also looking for "chemistry". Later, when I met my predecessor, I was actually sure of that.

The "interview" with Rochelle was nothing like an interrogation but everything like meeting a new friend! She must have instinctively decided that I was the right person for the job, because our entire conversation was just a nice chat and making plans for my meeting with Carl. 

Photo Credit: Fauxels

Carl was a long-time Starbucks partner having mainly worked in Operations in the NYC market.  He was then appointed to his first international assignment as CEO of Australia, and as of lately, for Switzerland and Austria. 

They were just in the process of dissolving an unsuccessful joint venture partnership with a Swiss retailer, and they were expecting a turnaround within Carl's first year of being in charge. So even though he probably had other things to worry about than my drinking or not drinking coffee, I went there prepared.

If he simply asked me "would you like a cup of coffee?" as in any other regular company, I was gonna say "no thanks, I just come from having coffee", which was true because I previously met a friend for coffee for some encouragement. I didn't technically drink any coffee, but that was between me and myself.

If he was going to ask about my favorite Starbucks beverage, I had the following idea:

"My husband's favorite by far is the Caramel Macchiato. As for me, I'm still open to find out as I haven't tried the majority on the menu." This was no lie.

The question "what would you like to drink" was going to be met with "actually, I'm nervous as it is, may I just have some water, please?" I think that would have been unsuspicious as well.

How did things actually play out?

First of all, the meeting was not taking place at the actual office, where they maintained a mock Starbucks store / kitchen, complete with grinder, espresso machine, milk steaming gadgets and the like. 

My predecessor was a lady they had hired on a temporary basis, and she was not a good fit on many levels. They wanted to replace her, but they didn't want to tell her because they needed her to stay on board until the new person was ready to start.

So how do you hire a new HR person without the current HR person's involvement?

By using an agency. And by being discreet.

Which resulted in us meeting in a rented meeting room in a neighbor building.

Carl's assistant got me at the reception and took me to that broom closet. She left a bag full of bottled water and a couple of soda cans. 

"Sorry I can't even offer you a coffee over here." she said.

Actually, the goodie bag was perfect!

Carl had some tough questions for me, and I was not sure if he was happy with my answers, especially since I had to tell him that the way things had been set up were not great in terms of labor law, processes and costs. But hey, that's what he actually wanted to hear, and he just made sure I was up to tackle these jobs, and quickly.

I think this was when Annie came into play. She was another wonderful Seattle HR person who took care of my onboarding,  and I met her in person during my immersion, but we're not there yet.

Less than a week later I started to work for Starbucks for two days a week. The other three days I was still with my previous employer to ensure a smooth transition. 

It was the craziest time. 

The former company had been acquired by the food giant Nestlé, and in the process I had to transfer or terminate people, while the new employer needed restructuring and rebuilding. interestingly I managed to use synergies and bring two people from the old place to the new one, which was great.

Within the first month with Starbucks, which was January 2004, I went through the usual introductory courses by day and tried to get some work done by night. In February I enjoyed my Seattle immersion, and in March I hit the hard ground of reality. 

Gone was the nice, fuzzy feeling of getting goodie bags, being shuttled from store to store, enjoying coffee tastings and meeting nice people.

Photo Credit: Lina Kivaka

First of all, my predecessor up and left as soon as she heard her temporary assignment was not converted into a permanent position. Her handover to me took about half an hour, in which she presented me the organizational chart (who cares?) and gestured to a drawer where everything could be found. 

Well, everything was a ton of unfinished and overdue operational, legal and administrative stuff.

The team who was supporting me consisted in two lovely young ladies, both of which worked part-time. One was an apprentice, probably 16 years old, and the other one was transitioning into a new career by the end of the month.

The new full-time assistant who had been hired by my predecessor and had been promised all kinds of things, none of which I was able to offer to her in the unforeseen future, joined. And left. I'm not sure if it was after two or three weeks.

I was not sad to see her go, but I needed someone to work for me, and soon! Luckily there was Nadja at the Store Development Department. I knew her from a previous job almost ten years ago. She joined Starbucks because she wanted to work for Starbucks, and even though there was no opening in HR, which was her field, she accepted any job.

Guess who ended up being my assistant, with her first assignment being to find her successor?


During that year we issued all of the partners with a proper work contract, insourced payroll, evaluated a time and attendance system, rolled out the Coffee Master Program, opened two stores in the Zurich area, closed two underperforming stores in Vienna, welcomed a new joint venture partner, hubby and I got married and I was actually granted a month long leave for my honeymoon in Australia, and at SBUX we began to prepare for the opening of the French speaking market.

The first store in Geneva opened in April 2005 if I remember correctly, at which time already the new CEO was being introduced, which sadly marked the end of Carl's assignment. The compensation and benefits system was overhauled, more stores were opened, new partners hired and trained. It was also the year we learned that a manager's wife had committed suicide, and his supervisor and I went to their home, not sure what exactly our job was, other than to just be there.

2006, 2007, the years came and went, hard to pinpoint what exactly happened when.

An annual business growth of 25 - 30% may look nice on the outside, but it takes so much hard work, and resources are being granted sparingly, meaning the same few overworked people need to work even more. 

As I'm typing this, I ask myself how did I even cope?

It was the people and the culture. 

So many dedicated and genuinely nice people in Seattle and our European neighbor markets UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Turkey and Greece - we were all in the same boat, and we supported each other with best practices, tools, but mainly morally.

Carl going back to the U.S. market was a bitter loss, both on a business and personal level, but fortunately there were other American expats holding us accountable and making sure the Starbucks spirit was kept alive. I kept in touch with many of them. 

Can you believe how little Colin is in this picture? This must have been in 2016. He's now taller then me. 

And of course if was up to me as well. I think I did the cultural and the coffee part really well. I can't say the same about crunching numbers or s***ing up to the investors. However, if I walk into a store today, and there are still some of the original partners, I'm always greeted with a smile, a hug - and a coffee. Yes, literally within the first month of employment I learned to taste and appreciate the coffee!

So, Arti and other loyal readers, I hope you enjoyed reliving the olden days with me!


  1. I've always been curious about the global expansion of Starbucks. I mean, coffee and tea houses were already a thing in Europe and Asia and have been for hundreds of years. Americans, on the other hand, didn't really embrace the coffee shop model until Starbucks. It's amazing to me how much one company has molded the culture of the USA. Thanks for sharing this perspective.

  2. Can't really blame the person you were replacing for walking out like that. That must have sucked for her. It's interesting how you managed to avoid the coffee question for so long.

  3. This sounds like a crazy time. I can kind of relate as I worked for WebMD when it launched. Insane growth on the outside with exhilarating, difficult growing pains on the inside. I wasn't there as long as you were with Starbucks, but I can understand some of it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you Tamara. I'll read it with my cup of tea -- at the end of day today:)

  5. Reading this post made me feel so special Tamara:) Thank you for sharing your 'coffee' story:) I especially like the 'sub-text' you provided about how you'd turn an offer of coffee down before your meetings. Ha! HA!
    You are lucky to be working in a place which values you as much as you value them.


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