It's much more than cosmetic. But is the new menu healthier?
Starbucks' biggest-ever food gamble is underway, with more to come. It all started late last year, when the coffee colossus introduced a line of pastries from La Boulange, a San Francisco-based artisanal bakery chain that it bought for $100 million in 2012. That was the first move in a complete menu overhaul that's scheduled to replace all behind-the-glass pastry offerings by the end of 2014.
The goal, as Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks Americas, told CBS News, is to raise the chain's food to the level of its coffee. "Only a third of the people who come into our stores buy our food. They buy coffee, and they go elsewhere for their food."
Improving the chain's rather stodgy offerings is in step with evolving American tastes. But the strategy may be a bit less in step with evolving ideas about healthy eating. "La Boulange and Starbucks share the same values in terms of quality of the product," says La Boulange founder Pascal Rigo, who was retained by Starbucks to change the chain's menu. "We are using the finest ingredients." When we pressed him about nutrition, Rigo's press handler stepped in to say that Starbucks couldn't really "speak to nutrition."
On the plus side, ingredient lists are brief and include whole, recognizable stuff, even regionally sourced produce. The Caramelized Apple Cake that was part of last fall's limited regional rollout was made with New York state apples for East Coasters, and Washington state apples for West Coasters. High-fructose corn syrup is absent (less a health than a PR achievement, but they're heeding consumer opinion), as are trans fats (Starbucks, laudably, was an early adopter of trans-fat bans). Portion sizes are more sensible in many cases. The new all-butter croissant, for example, sheds 23g in weight, 80 calories, and 4g sat fat, compared to its predecessor. Few items exceed 400 calories, an improvement over the older menu's heftier selections, which included a 500-calorie iced lemon cake, a 490-calorie banana bread, and a 480-calorie donut.
Though portion sizes make the menu a bit healthier, customers should still peruse the online nutrition information to plan their choices. The chain posts calories but does not post saturated fat and sodium—two key ingredients in the buttery La Boulange lineup. That means that if you choose the savory wheat-spinach croissant for its modest 320-calorie profile and wholesome whole-wheat dough, you won't know you're getting 11g sat fat (half a day's worth) and 530mg sodium.
The pastry changes are only the first move. Still to come: yogurts, released in partnership with Dannon, and fresh fruit juices. Hot breakfast sandwiches, snacks, "bistro boxes," and salad bowls will also eventually be reformulated with the La Boulange stamp.
For a chain that is part of the daily lives of tens of millions of Americans, the move to new food risks disappointing some loyalists. When we asked, on our Simmer & Boil blog, how Cooking Light Web users felt about the changes, 26 out of 30 responses were negative, often about the food's texture—and it's true that our tasting of 23 new products showed that reheating the pastries sometimes does them no favors, often resulting in gumminess. That's not a scientific poll, of course, but perhaps enough to keep a caffeinated baker up late. Meanwhile, we'll keep an eye on the Starbucks menu as it unfolds.
The Best of Starbucks' Breakfast Offerings
1 REDUCED-FAT BERRY COFFEE CAKE Full of both whole and dried fruit; uses heart-healthy canola oil as the primary fat over butter. Finished with a whole-grain oat crumble on top. CALORIES 320; FAT 11g (sat 3.5g); PROTEIN 5g; SODIUM 210mg
2 BLUEBERRY YOGURT MUFFIN At Cooking Light, muffins top out at 275 calories. In restaurants, they can weigh in at 500 calories or more. The numbers here are a wee bit high for our guidelines but not egregious. Sat fat is kept down with yogurt and oil instead of butter. CALORIES 320; FAT 13g (sat 3g); PROTEIN 5g; SODIUM 260mg
3 OATMEAL COOKIE A cookie for breakfast? Why not? This one is made with whole-grain oats and includes dried apricots. The numbers are far more favorable than those for a scone. CALORIES 220; FAT 9g (sat 5g); PROTEIN 4g; SODIUM 150mg
4 STEEL CUT OATMEAL Not technically part of the new menu, but still available, and that's a good thing: It's a hot, tasty, healthy, whole-grain breakfast. Fresh blueberries and agave syrup add only 40 calories. CALORIES 160; FAT 2.5g (sat 0g); PROTEIN 5g; SODIUM 125mg