Why would Starbucks throw perfectly good coffee away?
June 20, 2007 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Why would Starbucks throw perfectly good coffee away?

As a temp picking orders for a Starbucks warehouse (18,000-24,000 packages shipped per shift) I happened upon one of the custodial staff disposing of unopened coffee, teas, and other food-type items. When I asked why, he said it was company policy to do so. The store the items were picked for wasn't going to open for two months, so they returned them to the warehouse.

I see this as extremely wasteful and uncharacteristic for a company like Starbucks to essentially trash 100 cases or so of perfectly good product. Could they not donate it to a food bank or soup kitchen, etc.... or give it to the employees. :)

Should I be mad or is this the norm for food warehousing?

I can see the "chain of custody" view, that by doing so, the company doesn't open itself to a lawsuit because someone somewhere drank something that was a returned item, etc... but I'm curious if other companies have similar procedures.
posted by bach to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
All of the aforementioned products have expiration dates. Roasted coffee, even unground, has a shelf life (Starbucks normally has a one year shelf life). Tea has a two year shelf life (if I remember correctly; it's been a while).

When the coffee is roasted, it is automatically sealed in bags that suck the air out and pump in nitrogen (to keep the coffee fresh). Then the bag has a one way gas valve that allows the nitrogen and CO2 to bleed out without allowing air to come in. Despite the seal, however, the coffee does grow very stale over a fairly short period of time. The keen palate can actually differentiate between freshly roasted coffee (that was recently sealed) vs. stuff that's been sitting on the shelf for a few months. Local roasters (who don't seal their coffee) throw out their coffee much more often (or turn it into flavored coffee, which has an infinite shelf life as it has been doused with chemicals).

I don't know if this answers the question, because the stuff could've been thrown out for altogether different reasons.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 3:58 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and reason they can't donate it is because it might be tampered with and resold/distributed with the Starbucks label. Starbucks would be held liable (or at least sued) if a nefarious person took the donated items and did bad things. And it probably isn't worth the trouble of unpacking all the contents into non-descript packaging and then donating the food.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:01 PM on June 20, 2007

Although I call bullshit on my second point. That might be true, or it could be a grand bit of sophistry.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:03 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

It is very common for old or expired food to be destroyed.
For instance, grocery stores take day-old bread back off the racks and replace it with fresh product every day.

Sometimes they contribute the expired product to charities, like food kitchens intended to feed homeless, but it's quite common for it to go into the garbage.

All distribution systems are either wasteful or prone to undeflow. We in the First World have decided that empty store shelves are a Bad Thing, and that means that we've chosen to go with "wasteful" over "underflow".

Restaurants waste a lot of food, too. It's because they don't like telling customers, "Even though that's on the menu we can't serve it to you because we've run out." So they overstock, and as a result some of what they stock inevitably becomes excess. Either they give it to charity or they toss it in the garbage.

I think that the statistic I heard was that about one third of the food distributed in North America ended up going straight into the garbage. The rate is higher for fresh foods, and much lower for processed foods. Essentially no canned food gets tossed for this reason, but a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables end up as unconsumed waste.

This is one of the ironies of life: people who insist on eating an "organic diet" are consuming the kinds of foods for which distribution is less efficient and for which the distribution process inevitably leads to large amounts of food being wasted. Those who eat processed foods are consuming from a distribution steam which is more efficient and which results in less waste, because processed food doesn't spoil as fast and thus doesn't have to be flushed from the system.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:42 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

IANAL, but I did used to work at a food bank. Good Samaritan laws typically protect companies from being sued for the type of thing that SeizeTheDay mentioned. Otherwise, no one would donate anything to food banks. Also, for what its worth, I've never heard of a food bank or nonprofit agency tampering with donated food in a nefarious way. Talk about adding insult to injury to someone who can't afford to buy their own food...

Also, coffee is one of the more shelf-stable items out there, since most bugs, etc, aren't interested in eating it. Slight staleness is very different from food safety, and coffee can really hang out for quite a while. Most products have a "Best By" date (related to flavor and freshness), not an "Expiration Date," which would imply something about safety (or potency/chemistry, in the case of medical products).

Finally, donating coffee to a soup kitchen or homeless outreach program could be a great way to reroute the coffee that is no longer "fresh" enough for the typical Starbucks customer. Those programs would brew it up and serve it without the labels visible.
posted by bigd at 4:46 PM on June 20, 2007

I saw a tv show about people who know exactly which dumpsters to hit... and when. All food joints throw food away.

Said foodstuffs should be redistributed.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:46 PM on June 20, 2007

The idea of huge amounts of "perfectly good" food being wasted may seem obscene, especially in a world where famine is becoming routine in some places, but it really can't be avoided.

It's a basic principle of systems engineering that all robust systems are wasteful. All efficient systems are fragile. Practical experience has shown that robustness is preferable to efficiency, and you can't have both. (Though you can have neither. There do exist systems which are both inefficient and fragile.)

When it comes to a life-support system like food distribution, robustness is paramount, and that means you must accept a considerable degree of waste.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:50 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

All food vendors have waste. This is par for the course.

Moreover, correct me if I'm wrong, but Starbucks doesn't make instant coffee, nor do they serve industrial-style settings ... at least not from the same supply chain as their stores. Quite possibly, the homeless shelter concept wouldn't fly, because the homeless shelters simply don't have the equipment to make coffee from the grounds sold by Starbucks. They're trying to make coffee for dozens of undiscriminating dudes at a time, so for them, it's Yuban.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:01 PM on June 20, 2007

Starbucks, at least the one with which I am familair DOES donate TONS of perfectly good food and coffee to a local food bank/soup kitchen/homeless shelter. Its is, in fact, a lot more work, materials, bookkeeping and storage to donate it than it would be to simply throw it out.

But, when you are talking about large amounts of prepackaged coffee, it's a completely different thing. Starbucks considers itself an elite brand and can't risk sending off palates of their stuff off to who knows were, to possibly end up in dollar stores and what have you. Brand impression is the whole ball of wax with Starbucks.

Of course, I bet there is a systemic solution to this sort of thing somewhere, and that this particular instance of waste is just One Of Those Things. The goodwill and tax implications alone make this sort of waste out of character for Starbys.
posted by dirtdirt at 5:20 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

"Even though that's on the menu we can't serve it to you because we've run out."

This is a phrase I love to hear at restaurants because I know their food is fresh. Ditto for fish stores. An empty tray at a fish store is a beautiful thing to me.

Steven wrote:

Those who eat processed foods are consuming from a distribution steam which is more efficient and which results in less waste, because processed food doesn't spoil as fast and thus doesn't have to be flushed from the system.

If it weren't for all the preservatives pumped into our food multi-national corporations couldn't dominate distribution and food would have to be more local. So it's a catch-22. I try to eat the most organic and highly perishable food I can get my hands on. I figure the higher price will eventually even out with lower healthcare costs.
posted by any major dude at 5:26 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Its is, in fact, a lot more work, materials, bookkeeping and storage to donate it than it would be to simply throw it out.

I've worked at a Starbucks. It certainly didn't cost us any more work, materials or bookkeeping to donate them. Whether they were getting thrown out or donated, we just hucked all the stale goods in a plastic bag and shoved them in the fridge. If nobody picked them up for donations, they got thrown out with the other garbage. As far as my region (Toronto West) was concerned, that was par for the course. I don't understand why it would ever have to work otherwise.
posted by Evstar at 6:44 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Coffee has absolutely no nutritional content, though, so discarding it isn't as "wasteful" in a nutritional sense as throwing out vegetables or meat. Also, and I don't know if it's the same in other places, our food bank doesn't take donations of tea and coffee, because it's not considered food.
posted by watsondog at 6:49 PM on June 20, 2007

or turn it into flavored coffee, which has an infinite shelf life as it has been doused with chemicals

Also useful info!
posted by gimonca at 7:05 PM on June 20, 2007

My brother works at Otis Spunkmeyer and brings home lots of half-cartons of muffins and cookies. Sales reps will often rip open a carton at the warehouse to take a few packages with them as samples. Once a carton has been opened, it can't be shipped to a store. If it doesn't get completely emptied by other sample-seekers after a few days, the company tosses the stuff out. About once a month my parents take a vanload of Otis products to the Salvation Army shelter in their city.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:18 PM on June 20, 2007

I've volunteered at food banks before and they view coffee as one of the most desired items out there. It is so coveted by the shelters and soup kitchens that get the food from the food bank that the food bank does not (1) worry about the expiration date at all, and (2) worry about the "label" ... as long as the coffee has not been exposed, it is considered useable.

At least this is the case in the food bank I've volunteered at.
posted by tastybrains at 8:46 PM on June 20, 2007

Following factoids are not food specific but:

The company where I work currently just threw out a 16 ext PABX (as in, put it out with the rubbish) because we'd upgraded to VoIP and time taken to put it on the internet and sort out shipping or collection time etc would probably cost more than binning it. (Although I identified what it was and listed it on an auction site and its already got $150 on it).

I used to work as a security guard, and did night rounds on a number of businesses, I know that a major department store, after every seasonal sale would have dumpsters full of new clothes. If they're selling stock on seasonal fashions and they get returned goods, they cant reshelve them, so they have to be binned and put down as a loss. I found a fully functional mountain bike with shocks (less the wheels though) sitting outside one night, I asked about it and was told it had been scratched and was claimed on insurance and was free to help myself.

After a lengthy power cut a supermarket was throwing out tons of meat into their compactor, I think a few co-workers of mine scored boot (read: trunk) loads of it.

I've pulled iMacs (the old ones) out of a publishing companies bin next to my old apartment, gone out because they're got newer models and they didnt want anything to do with them anymore. I redirected them to a community centre.

I've gotten in trouble for 'dumpster diving' as well though, apparently it's 'stealing' to take stuff from other peoples bins and that I'd have to "buy it like all the other customers".

I think it comes down to a range of things, the cost of having the stuff sent somewhere else (eg, shipped off to a seconds, damaged goods, or community group), or having to take liability. (eg: if the bike had a flaw which would cause an accident).

I know that most food places give end-of-day stock to their employees and I used to help a local bakery take bread and pastries to the Sallies.
posted by chrisbucks at 8:50 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I worked in a cake shop for one reason or another we would occasionally end up with a 60 serve cake with no customer.
We used to give them to a local nursing home, or occasionally the salvos.
posted by bystander at 9:20 PM on June 20, 2007

A local boys home picks up overage pastries at Starbucks. After Christmas, there were also cans of hot chocolate mix and thick peppermint sticks.
posted by Cranberry at 11:05 PM on June 20, 2007

Slight tangent:

Why would Starbucks throw perfectly good coffee away?

If I recall correctly, the employee manual states that brewed coffee must be disposed of after 3 hours. This creates tension with the pressure on managers to reduce costs — since obviously, one easy solution is to keep coffee hot until it's sold.

On paper, Starbucks is committed to freshness and will tolerate the necessary degree of waste. In practice, well, different managers manage differently.
posted by cribcage at 11:17 PM on June 20, 2007

I realize that on some level this is rank speculation, but my memory of living with a Starbucks manager was that there was a good deal of local autonomy within the corporation. It may just not have occurred to anyone with the power to donate that coffee etc. to do so.
posted by klangklangston at 11:25 PM on June 20, 2007

For what it's worth, Starbucks was recently ranked highest in the Food Services category with 46 points by Climate Counts. (McDonald's got 22 points; Burger King got 0.)

What you could do with your temp assignment is make it a mission to find out the person at your Starbucks warehouse with the power to make a deal with a local food bank.
posted by dhartung at 2:16 AM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's not quite the same as your Starbucks situation, but in high school I worked the closing shift at a Dunkin' Donuts, and one of my duties was bagging up and tossing all the baked goods that didn't get sold. I had several regulars who knew what time I would start doing that, so they'd show up just before and I'd let them have whatever they wanted before it went in the dumpster. This included one cop who came by almost every night to claim all the leftover plain Munchkins for his dogs.
posted by emmastory at 3:44 AM on June 21, 2007

My guess is that your warehouse friend probably just got the order "Get rid of it. We can't send it back out" and was too lazy or ignorant to look into donation.

and @ emmmastory: I do that. I have also, after 'late nights' with friends, far after everything worthwhile has closed, dumpster dived Dunkin'. They're in sealed plastic bags, plus your standards are significantly lowered when under the influence of late-nite-hunger.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 6:14 AM on June 21, 2007

or give it to the employees. :)

You'll find that, when you have a "give tampered/expired products to the employees" policy, shady individuals will intentionally tamper with/break the product, or hold it aside under a shelf or something until it expires. Any "excess goes to employees" policy has the potential of being abused.

I knew a woman who worked in the back room at Target who was diabetic. When her blood sugar was getting low, she'd ask someone to "accidentally rip open" a pack of gummy bears. Management turns their head to small stuff like this, but if it was company policy, you'd get widespread abuse. At least some of your product would end up on eBay, instead of on your store shelves.

That said, I can't tell you why it isn't being donated. A lot of companies, even food companies, will routinely donate near-waste to local charities. I'm sure there's a way within the Starbucks organization to suggest doing so. I'd get in contact with some higher-ups and see if you can't put the idea in some heads.
posted by almostmanda at 4:45 PM on June 21, 2007

I used to work at for a chain bookstore café that would fire employees for taking home or eating goods that were no longer being sold to the public. It was a pretty shitty policy considering the employee wages were so low we could barely afford to feed ourselves, much less by something at the overpriced café wherewe worked.

I wouldn't be surprised if the reasoning behind this has something to do with shrinkage and sticking it to the employees.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:02 PM on June 21, 2007

If I recall correctly, the employee manual states that brewed coffee must be disposed of after 3 hours. This creates tension with the pressure on managers to reduce costs — since obviously, one easy solution is to keep coffee hot until it's sold.

It's one hour. And that's standard across every corporate owned store, so the cost reduction argument is eliminated. If you're going through enough coffee that you use extra, the profit you make more than offsets the cost of the brew. In fact, I'll be so bold as to say that one cup of coffee easily pays for the entire half gallon that's created. A small cup, no less. (I say this from experience, not pulling it out of my ass, which I clearly do from time to time.) ::ahem::

And this example from the OP is from the warehouse, not from the retail location.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 6:38 PM on June 21, 2007

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