Whatever Happened To Starbucks' Self-Serve Creamers In Stores?

Although the pandemic is largely a thing of the past at this point, a lot has changed over the last four years. Offices no longer have a monopoly on workspaces, the price of goods is higher than we'd all like, and QR codes are everywhere. But some things are different now that probably shouldn't be. When COVID first shut everything down, it forced restaurants to prioritize convenience and safety, which meant changes to what business as usual looked like.

Pre-pandemic, Starbucks had something like a condiment bar that had packages of sugar and self-serve creamer carafes that customers could use to personalize their morning coffee. When businesses were forced to take action to sanitize their spaces, Starbucks saw the condiment bar as a focal point for potential transmission of the virus. To remove the hazard, the company removed the station and placed the sugar packets and creamers behind the bar with the baristas. Customers could still ask for sugar and cream, they just couldn't get it for themselves.

Fast forward to today and most things are back to normal. A recent study has shown that food safety precautions are down from pandemic highs, but that still hasn't fully brought back the Starbucks condiment bar and many of us are wondering why. We could ascribe it to the inertia of a multinational corporation but Starbucks has come out affirmatively stating that the condiment bar will remain behind the counter — and big companies like Starbucks don't make that kind of decision on a whim.

A transactional relationship

The change is happening at a time when Starbucks has continued to move away from its identity as a Third Place. Third Places are differentiated from First and Second Places by being somewhere people can relax and hang out that aren't home or work. It was a crucial component of the early Starbucks business model to create Third Places as a way to build community. This isn't the motto of Starbucks today, though. 

As Starbucks shifts to a more mobile-friendly, grab-and-go style of coffee shop, the little conveniences and comforts that were once integral to making people feel at home in the Starbucks lobby are slowly being walked back. A little while ago we reported on the uncomfortable seating that Starbucks has implemented in its stores as a way to disincentivize customers from hanging out in the building for long periods of time. The removal of the condiment bar could be a purely financial decision if it ended up saving the company money as many have speculated on Reddit, but it could also be a part of this shift away from cultivating Third Places. 

When the company responded to previous questions about the condiment bar, its representatives pointed out that customers are easily able to customize their drinks when they order on the mobile app. It may seem trite to complain about the loss of a condiment bar or the new furniture and, viewed separately, these aren't huge changes. But subtly and slowly, the cozy and welcoming environment of the Third Place is becoming the impersonal and solitary experience of a purely transactional relationship.