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Gauging the Economy via the 'Bad Barista Index'

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Gauging the Economy via the 'Bad Barista Index'

Commentary

Gauging the Economy via the 'Bad Barista Index'

Gauging the Economy via the 'Bad Barista Index'

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Commentator Mark Rovner visits a Starbucks a few times a day. And all that time waiting in line and all that coffee has him thinking about his habit and the economy.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Mark Rovner visits a Starbucks a few times a day, and all that time waiting in line and all that coffee has him thinking about his habit and the economy.

MARK ROVNER:

First of all, full disclosure: I own Starbucks. Well, to be accurate, I own about a billionth of it. So as a part owner of Starbucks--and let's face it, a severe addict--I spend an awful lot of time worshiping at the caffeine cathedral. And as a frequent traveler, I venture into many a different Starbucks in any given week. In these visits I have encountered a hidden truth. You can divine the state of the overall economy by looking deeply into the rhythm of life at the cathedral. I call it the bad barista index, or BBI.

The BBI is an overall assessment of how well things are running behind the big espresso machines at the majority of stores you visit. A well-run Starbucks is a thing to behold. The whole place thrums with the efficiency of an Indy 500 pit stop: You're in, you're out, you're caffeinated. At a really good Starbucks, this happens not only with efficiency but with panache. The barista's hands are a lyrical blur of juggling cups and steaming milk. The cashier calls out drinks like a serenade, recognizing the regulars and offering a bit of sassy wit. And there's Sarah McLachlan on the stereo with music to soothe the undercaffeinated soul. When it all comes together, it really is the coffee experience.

But things don't always go well. When the Starbucks folks are all new or undertrained or just not that bright, the trip to Starbucks becomes a descent into purgatory. The line slows to a crawl, resembling a Brooks Brothers-clad, Soviet-era bread line full of anger and helplessness and existential despair. Replacing the singsong of the cashier comes the fevered and intense debate over whether an Iced Venti Americano has three shots of espresso or four. For the record, good listeners, it's four. People want to work at Starbucks.

Here's where the BBI comes in. Those awesomely talented baristas get lured away when the economy cranks up. They leave the espresso life for better-paying and less demanding jobs, like practicing law or going into politics. When enough front-line baristas are replaced by less-skilled individuals, the signature Starbucks experience unravels; the death spiral begins. So when the bad barista index goes up, that has to mean that the economy is doing pretty well. And, folks, I'm here to tell you from San Francisco to Silver Spring, the BBI is way, way up.

So forget all that economist dogma. Drop by your neighborhood Starbucks. Take solace in the fact that if you have a crummy experience getting your afternoon fix, your 401(k) is almost certainly headed for better days ahead.

SIEGEL: Mark Rovner is a communications consultant. He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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