After 32 years at Starbucks, Leslie Wolford thinks a lot about the word heritage. She’s had a career that started as a barista near the downtown Seattle public library, a career during which she’s helped develop some of the brand’s most iconic coffees, including Pike Place Roast ® and Veranda Blend®.
“When a lot of people think about heritage, we talk about 1982 when Howard Schultz started, the past, dark roasts, black coffee, all those things,” says Wolford, a lead on the Starbucks coffee development team.
“That’s why Green Apron Blend is a milestone because it creates a new heritage. It creates a steppingstone to the next generation of partners (employees) about what heritage looks like.”
Green Apron Blend is Starbucks newest coffee, launching in stores May 9, and is unique because it was created by Starbucks store partners (employees). Nearly 24,000 idea submissions from store partners shaped its flavour and roast profiles, as well as which regions the coffee was sourced from, and the look and feel of the packaging.
As part of Starbucks ongoing commitment to partners, $5 per each one-pound whole-bean bag of Green Apron Blend and, for a limited time, 10 cents per each brewed cup will go to the Starbucks Caring Unites Partners (CUP) Fund, an emergency resource started 25 years ago by partners for partners to help in times of need, such as a family emergency or after a natural disaster.
“At the end of the day, the partners in the stores are the ones selling the coffee, so we should recognize that they have a lot of opportunity to lean in,” Wolford says. “How great is that when we can build something together?”
For Wolford, this project was an opportunity to think about coffee in a different way. She acknowledges how times and tastes have changed. A whole new generation of baristas and customers have grown up around iced beverages, refreshers and cold brews, Wolford says, and don’t think about coffee heritage the same way she does.
“Green Apron Blend has to fire on a lot of different levels and not just live on the shelf as a packaged coffee, so how can we reinvent it in different ways and bring it to life?” Wolford says.
“When you experiment with this coffee, whether brewing it as hot in the Bunn brewer, Clover Vertica or in a coffee press, you really get more of the citrus notes from the African origins and the toasty graham cracker notes from the Latin American components. Then when you introduce it in a cold style such as iced or cold brew, that's going to be more sweet-forward. It's super refreshing and it has an energy which I think is really going to be exciting over ice.”
The input gathering process was meaningful for Wolford as well. Store partners were coming off the isolation and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic when the Green Apron Blend project launched, and while themes emerged about the direction of the coffee itself, partners also responded deeply and emotionally to the open-ended questions, Wolford says.
“We offered up a bunch of questions: What’s your favorite coffee? How do you celebrate coffee? How do you like to drink coffee? What’s your favorite origin? Really coffee-related,” Wolford says. “But threaded through were all these narratives about self-care, being a group that supported each other, not being left behind, diversity and inclusion.”
“My takeaway is when we are sharing this coffee and celebrating it, everyone can feel proud. We really wanted to make sure that our partners voices were heard.”
The Roaster and the coffee
ong before he was promoted to the role of master roaster at the Starbucks Augusta Roasting Plant in Georgia, Ryan Kirkland worked as a chemical operator, helping build an organic compound used for synthetic fibers.
“Never in a million years,” he says, could he have imagined himself not only appreciating new coffees, but searching for subtle tasting notes of honeybell orange and graham cracker.
“At that point in time, it was, coffee tastes like coffee. I couldn't taste the difference in any of it,” Kirkland says. “But now going through sensory (experience training) and really focusing in on these different attributes… My wife calls me a coffee snob.”
At Augusta, Kirkland oversees the production of the Green Apron Blend, a 50/50 blend of coffees sourced from Latin America and Africa that – after it’s roasted light and fast – gives it the aforementioned flavours. The overall profile is sweet, citrusy, fruity and nutty.
“The roast profile we chose to run this coffee on is extremely fast,” Kirkland says. “It's much lighter than what we would normally run most Starbucks coffees to. Because of how we roasted it, we didn't generate quite as much acidity as we would have with other coffees.
“By having something that's really well-rounded, it makes it really easy to brew, no matter what brewing method you choose.”
Augusta, which opened in 2012, is Starbucks' newest roasting plant. It produces almost all the Frappuccino powder that’s used at Starbucks around the world and much of the Starbucks Blonde Espresso sent to stores. It roasted the initial batches of Green Apron Blend that were first tasted by partners, last October during the District Manager Leadership Experience and with in-store partner tastings across the United States and Canada.
As a master roaster, Kirkland makes sure his plant’s systems are set up to be reliable and consistent, so each particular coffee tastes the same today as it will five years from now and tastes the same as what’s made at other Starbucks roasting plants around the world.
“Having a bag of coffee and having the plant partners taste it and pick up on the attributes, that is rewarding because we're actually doing the coffee justice,” Kirkland says. “We're taking the time to not only roast the coffee, but pick up on the attributes that could have gotten lost had somebody else gotten a hold of that coffee.”
Behind the new bag design
Once the recipe and the roast were perfected, Bridget Shilling in the Starbucks Creative Studio was tasked with the design for the packaging. A bag of Starbucks coffee is like a blank canvas for designers to tell the story of the coffee inside. For her composition, Shilling was drawn to the stories of Wolford, Kirkland and the thousands of partners who submitted their ideas, as well as the distinctive flavour notes of Starbucks® Blonde Roast coffee.
“The way our partners work together was the key inspiration for me from a visual perspective,” Shilling says. “Even as a customer walking into a Starbucks store, I see partners weaving in and out of each other behind the bar, crafting different beverages, passing cups, knowing exactly where to be around each other – and that goes all the way back to our roasters and coffee buyers.”
The design of Green Apron Blend celebrates the contributions of partners in the journey of coffee with symbols representing the care that goes into each step from bean to cup:
Aprons: The green apron is the symbol of Starbucks and represents the 400,000 partners who connect with customers every day. The design features aprons in motion with apron strings that weave through the design to represent the synergy of partners working together.
Cups: The iconic Starbucks cup is a vessel, and an inviting and familiar part of the daily routine. The orange tones call to mind the honeybell orange notes of the coffee while shimmering golden hues recall the roast. (Honeybell orange, by the way, is a honey-sweet hybrid of tangerine and grapefruit.)
Coffee: Golden coffee hues are playfully sprinkled throughout the design to signify the roast chosen by partners while swirls of steam evoke the warm energy of Starbucks stores.
Craft: In the background, the marbled texture represents the care that goes into blending, roasting, brewing and hand-crafting beverages
Shilling wants partners to see their contributions reflected in the design when they pick up a bag of Green Apron Blend.
“I hope partners see themselves in it; that it feels like the story they would want to tell,” Shilling says. “This paying tribute to our green apron partners, and I hope they feel pride and that it resonates with them.”