“I didn’t want to retire from the same job, having done the exact same thing all my life”, says D Major Cohen, who gave up his job as a photography teacher in a private school in Boston, to pursue something radically different. Look where that decision brought him. Today, Cohen answers to the title of Brand and Coffee Ambassador at Starbucks Coffee and has been with the coffee giant for over 20 years. We caught up with him at Starbucks India’s flagship store in Mumbai’s colonial heartland, Horniman Circle, and got to know more about his passion for the heady aroma of coffee. And while we were at it, we got him to demonstrate an easy brewing technique for us.
So here’s how the story pans out — After he gave up his teaching job, Cohen pursued photography as a full-time profession. It was then that a Starbucks employee suggested he join, even if part-time, to avail the medical benefits offered by the company. Being a coffee lover he took up the challenge and started from scratch, as a barista, behind the counter, earning minimum wage. The rest is, as they say, history.
“When I first started, I was overwhelmed as there were 20 different coffees at Starbucks for me to learn about. My manager at the time advised me to just keep tasting the different coffees a lot, which would eventually help me to understand the difference between them”, says Cohen.
Cohen being “passionate & curious” saw him rise up the ranks and being promoted as store manager within a month. In just a few years, he was identified by their Seattle based management as their learning/teaching head for Boston. Starbucks had six stores in the Boston area when he joined, there were a hundred by the time he was teaching head. Cohen was further promoted to a District Manager six years after joining. Two years later, the post of Coffee Education Specialist opened-up in Seattle & he was asked by the management to apply.
Under him, Starbucks thought of developing a non-branded, test store called Roy Street to try-out different brewing techniques, presentation and gauge customer experience. They started with pour over coffee (which Starbucks wasn’t doing at the time) in the store as well as different foods. Product successes there were repatriated to the parent organisations outlets.
Co-incidentally the designer for that store is the same person to have designed the flagship Fort store.
Cohen was one of the pioneers to develop Starbucks’ training modules as the company was expanding so rapidly, it wasn’t possible to train everyone personally at length.
I asked him about the pricing and appeal of Starbucks in the Indian context. Why does a customer pay for Starbucks?
He says “for the partners (the word Starbucks uses for its baristas/employees) and the experience. The Indian customer is walking in from a world which is vibrant and intense, joyous and frantic but, when you walk in, you’ve stepped into an oasis, its cool, its not plastic, there’s cool furniture and a partner shouts welcome to Starbucks”
I jokingly added, “and not the Free WiFi?”
Cohen affirms and goes on to say that along with the food pairing, it’s the holistic experience they’re selling.
Case in point, as Cohen explains is a mini take-out kind of a Starbucks outlet in Times Square, NYC where busy people can come in, place their order & be out in quick time – adapting to their markets.
It was now time to get serious, and enjoy some coffee.
So when the barista asked what coffee I’d prefer, I turned to the person sitting right in front of me for advice, a person who is arguably one of the world’s most seasoned coffee connoisseurs. Without much deliberation, Major suggested the Flat White.
For those of you who’ve travelled to Australia and New Zealand, you might know it as one of the most popular coffee styles there. It is very similar to a latte wherein, with two shots of espresso to enhance the flavour. The milk is steamed with lesser foam/microfoam instead. After gaining popularity in the US, the Flat White has now been introduced in India and I was happy to try it.
Cohen, along with Saili Rane, a Starbucks Coffee Championship India winner and runner-up Rubina Qureshi, gave me a quick demo of one of the three basic coffee brewing methods, the Pour Over.
The other two methods being Full Immersion (the way we do it in India by adding a teaspoon of coffee in hot water/milk) and French Press – which is Starbucks’ default brewing method as u get great extraction from it.
For me, following this interaction, Starbucks stops being just another coffee chain and is now a hotbed of coffee culture – in more ways than one. Cohen expresses it perfectly “the experience is hyped by the great service provided by Starbucks partners. Delicious, well executed beverages by craftsmen which are consistent across the globe. If its not, you let the partner know & they’ll remake it for you. Its a small price to pay for feeling special.”
I wish i could put down more of my vivid, hour-long interaction with Major and his infectious zest and passion for his art – something to which he is not just fully devoted to but, busy inspiring and training others in.
Starbucks will shortly celebrate its 3rd anniversary in India, they currently have 76 outlets in the country.
Words and Photography by Vishal Jolapara
Editor’s View: Working in the luxury and travel space, and being a self-confessed coffee addict, I have often been the object of criticism when I openly patronise Starbucks Coffee outlets around the world over some of the ‘fancier’ brands. At home, I do drink Nespresso, which happens to be one of the world’s most premium coffee brands, but when I am out and about, I do not hesitate to step into a Starbucks outlet. I not only pay for a coffee that is consistently made to my taste, every single time, no matter where in the world I am, but also the warm and friendly service that I experience. For instance, in Paris, if I have the choice of sipping a lukewarm espresso, served by a grumpy, disrespectful waiter at a local cafe or stepping into a Starbucks, with English-speaking, courteous and consistent staff, I choose the latter. As I always say, I pay for the consistent experience and great ambience. And no matter what the coffee snobs say, I openly endorse Starbucks. It doesn’t make me any less discerning.