The Four Stages Behind Starbucks’s Global Domination

Starbucks is one of the most iconic brands in the world, with over 32,000 stores globally. But how did a small Seattle coffee shop transform into a ubiquitous global empire?

The growth of Starbucks can be traced through four key stages, each revealing integral elements that enabled its massive success. Understanding this journey provides valuable insights – not just into Starbucks itself – but for any business looking to expand.

The Humble Origins of Starbucks

Stage 1: Specialty Coffee Beans

In the 1960s, Gordon Bowker tried an exceptional cappuccino while traveling in Italy. At the time, most coffee in America was low-quality diner or instant coffee. Bowker was struck by the vastly superior taste of this Italian espresso.

When he returned from his trip, Bowker told two friends about his revelation. Together in 1971, they opened the first Starbucks store in Seattle. However, unlike today, the original Starbucks solely sold whole bean coffee for home brewing. They did not sell drinks in-store.

With this model, Starbucks saw steady but modest growth. By 1981, they had expanded to four stores in the Seattle area as their beans built up devotees. Their specialty coffee was good – really good in fact. So good that it caught the attention of an ambitious young entrepreneur named Howard Schultz.

The Turning Point: Shifting to the Italian Coffee Experience

Stage 2: Serving Drinks In-Store

In 1981, Howard Schultz was vice president of Starbucks’s equipment supplier. During a visit to Starbucks, he tried their coffee and was blown away. He instantly wanted to get involved with the fledgling company.

However, the founders rebuffed Schultz’s proposals to transform Starbucks into an Italian-style espresso bar. Undeterred, Schultz left Starbucks in 1985 to launch his own chain of cafes called Il Giornale. His vision was to fuse Starbucks’s quality coffee with the community atmosphere he experienced at cafes in Italy.

Within two years, Starbucks’s founders decided to sell their company. They offered Schultz the opportunity to purchase Starbucks. After considerable effort raising funds from investors, Schultz acquired Starbucks for $3.8 million in 1987.

Immediately upon taking over, Schultz began transitioning Starbucks locations into cafes selling drinks made to order. This shift in business model unlocked the full experience that the brand would come to be known for in the decades that followed.

Rapid Expansion Across America

Stage 3: Aggressive Store Openings

With a proven café format that resonated with the public, Starbucks entered a period of aggressive nationwide expansion under Schultz’s leadership through the 1990s. By 1998, there were over 1,000 Starbucks locations.

But Schultz set his sights even higher – he wanted to make Starbucks a global phenomenon. In 2000, he stepped down as CEO to focus on international growth as the new Chairman. Starbucks would open stores across Japan, the Philippines, the UK, and more in rapid succession.

Fueling this ambitious global vision, Starbucks opened approximately 7 new stores every single day during its peak expansion. By 2008, it had almost 17,000 stores worldwide – a staggering 10,000% increase since Schultz purchased the company. Starbucks had become truly ubiquitous and embedded into American culture.

Returning To Its Roots

Stage 4: Refocusing On Customer Experience

However, Starbucks’s astronomical enlargement came at a cost. In 2008, an internal memo by Schultz lamented that they had “watered down” the unique Starbucks experience through their swift growth. Combined with the Financial Crisis, Starbucks stock price halved and its future looked grim.

In response, Starbucks reinstated Schultz as CEO to right the ship. He immediately halted all expansion plans. Instead, his priority was to refocus the company completely around restoring customer satisfaction.

Schultz introduced numerous changes to improve Starbucks’s hospitality and drinks craftsmanship despite short-term costs. This included closing every US store simultaneously for retraining. Drastic actions like this signaled that Starbucks had returned to its founding values but with a wiser long-term mindset.


By renewing its commitment to offering an unmatched café experience, Starbucks rebuilt crucial customer loyalty. Since returning as CEO, Schultz has guided Starbucks to new heights through bold initiatives enhancing hospitality alongside product innovation.

Understanding this journey reveals that Starbucks is far more than just a coffee company. Its runaway success has been fueled by creating inspiring spaces where people genuinely enjoy lingering. Starbucks mastered the art of designing cafes as ‘third places’ between work and home.

Furthermore, what sets Starbucks apart is recognizing that consistently delivering this emotional connection is vital – not just rapid expansion. By balancing these dynamics, Starbucks continues growing globally whilst retaining its heart.