Stomachs churned and food service workers broke out in a cold sweat when a photo of a long, complicated custom Starbucks order went viral on Twitter. “On today's episode of why I wanna quit my job,” a barista named Josie jokingly tweeted about Edward's order, a caramel crunch Frappuccino with 13 customizations, including banana syrup, cinnamon dolce topping, and seven pumps of caramel sauce. (After the story went viral, the barista was fired from his job for violating store policy, even though the real Edward found the whole thing amusing.)
There was a time when the idea of a mere soy latte or mocha Frappuccino was the punchline of dad jokes, an eyeroll about people not drinking “real” coffee. That time is long past, and a set of factors all coming together at once has made incredibly complex orders at Starbucks the norm rather than the exception — sometimes to the chagrin of the workers.
Welcome to the age of the Appuccino.
Like any change in US consumer habits over the last year, the pandemic is a driving force. Last spring, as many stores closed down inside for weeks or months, the mobile app became crucial. According to a recent earnings report from Starbucks, 26% of orders from January through March 2021 were placed over the mobile app, up from 18% of orders the year before. For some stores, mobile orders increased even more sharply. The number of store locations where the mobile app accounted for over 20% of orders during peak rush went from 4,600 to 7,200 over the course of a year.
When you order through the app, adding in customizations is easy, almost encouraged. The user interface of the customization menu also has a flattening effect that makes add-ons more acceptable. Adding in a Splenda or extra shot — pretty standard things you might order if you were standing in a store — is given the same visual weight as less common additions like pistachio syrup or kiwi chunks. It also mitigates the possible embarrassment of ordering a weird drink in person, and gives the budding alchemist the extra time needed to ponder which extra pumps to add.
However, there are some limitations. The app menu won’t let you add certain toppings meant for lattes or espresso drinks to the iced teas and Refreshers. But the mobile app is only part of the rise of the custom drink — just the sweet cold foam topping on the drink.
"Another day, another Starbies!"
The biggest contributor to the rise of the Appuccino is TikTok, where customized drink suggestions go viral and there are Starbucks influencers (and even employees) who show off the drinks they make.
Teens and young people have long been devoted fans of sweet icy drinks like the Frappuccino, and that’s exactly the TikTok demographic. Bryant Simon, history professor at Temple University and author of Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks told BuzzFeed News that ever-changing novelty drinks like custom Frappucinos appeal to teenagers because unlike adults who tend to stick to their same coffee order for decades, teens will experiment with new tastes and orders. Starbuck also has a unique appeal to young people who can’t go to bars and want to have a place to hang out.
“To teens, Starbucks remains a place where you can act (a bit) like a grown up and you can be a space with minimum adult supervision (especially if you can pass for white.)” said Simon. “Parents on the other hand basically trust the brand (trust the price points and locations will filter out the wrong kinds of people.)”
The TikTok effect is significant: Owen, a barista in Nashua, New Hampshire, told BuzzFeed News that there was a time last summer where a viral TikTok drink — iced white mocha with cold foam and caramel drizzle — was so popular that it accounted for about 1 in 5 drinks he made during the afternoon shift.
Ava James Cloupe, a model from New Jersey, originally posted the iced white mocha recipe to TikTok. “I actually have a friend who works at Starbucks, and she told me about how good the sweet cream foam is,” Cloupe told BuzzFeed News. “I already got the iced white mocha, so I added it and of course had to add caramel. Caramel makes everything better.” She was surprised by how viral it went, but has since moved on to the brown sugar oat milk shaken espresso. “I've talked to so many people who worked there about it and they would always tell me how annoying it was to make the drink because of the sweet cream foam,” Cloupe said.
Starbucks’ competitors have also noticed TikTok. Last summer, Dunkin’ added the “Charli” to its menu, a drink designed by TikTok star Charli D’Amelio (iced cold brew with three pumps of caramel syrup). The new menu item was so popular that over the winter, Dunkin’ added another version of it, served with cold foam.
“Another day, another Starbies!”
Anna Sitar is a Starbucks Appuccino star on TikTok. She has 9 million followers who delight in watching her taste-test various concoctions called “Starbies.” She starts the videos with a tagline — “another day, another Starbies!” then describes the drink, often suggested by a fan, and orders it from the drive-thru and drinks it in her car. Her first sip is often with a furrowed brow, then she smacks her lips, and at the inevitable conclusion: it’s delicious.
Sitar’s appeal is not exclusively because of her taste tests — she’s thin, white, and attractive; she also posts dance videos and tutorials on posing in a bathing suit. While she is probably the most popular Starbucks TikToker, but there are plenty of others. One popular viral drink — a mango dragonfruit Refresher, no water, blended with strawberry puree and whipped cream on top — was first posted by a makeup artist creator who professionally goes by Dima.
There are also Starbucks baristas who post TikToks of themselves making new and inventive custom drinks. Lizzie Dye is a Starbucks store manager in London who posts TikToks of the creations she makes while at work. Her version of Cloupe’s iced white mocha ended up getting far more views than the original. “I had never had anyone order it in-store in all my time working there. However since posting the video, I’m losing track of how many people now order it in-store each day,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Dye’s TikToks are so popular that she says she gets recognized by customers, and one even drove two hours just to visit her store to get a drink made by her. While Starbucks corporate has never reached out to her to say anything about her account, she noticed the official Starbucks TikTok account follows her.
Fanta Nabe, a barista from Bowie, Maryland, who has a popular TikTok account of her drinks, said that the iced white mocha is still popular, but dying out. “The raspberry lemonade with strawberry acai poured on top is definitely making its way up there,” she told BuzzFeed News.
I tried the strawberry acai drink (good but very sweet; my 4-year-old loved it) along with some other Appuccinos: the famous iced white mocha, a caramel macchiato with some extra drizzle and syrups, and a cold brew with additional topping. They were all good, and sort of exactly what you’d expect. They were fun to try, but not for me. I had wanted to order “the Edward,” but my local Starbucks was actually out of so many of the custom items like caramel drizzle and caramel frap base. Baristas on places like r/Starbucks and employee Facebook groups have been complaining that custom ingredients have constantly been running out of supply. Riley said this was largely because of global supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic.
The reaction to the viral “Edward” order was largely sympathy for the Starbucks employees who have to make these complicated drinks. BuzzFeed reported about how other baristas chimed in on Twitter talking about the ridiculous orders they’ve had to make. Vice News talked to baristas who are understandably frustrated — especially when customers attempt to order the custom drinks by the cutesy name from TikTok (“the Harry Styles Refresher”) instead of by their ingredients.
“I personally like making custom orders.”
Not all baristas hate them, though. Several that BuzzFeed News spoke with said they didn’t mind making Appuccinos, and sometimes found it fun to see what interesting new things people ordered — just as long as it wasn’t during a busy rush.
“I personally like making custom orders, it’s fun making off-the-menu ideas,” said Nabe.
“Don’t get me wrong, it can definitely get stressful when you’re in a large rush and someone orders something really complicated,” barista Brittany Guidera told BuzzFeed News. “But one of my favorite parts about being a barista is being able to create something that the customer loves. It’s also cool because I get combinations that I would never think to try but they end up being all our go-tos.” She discovered a drink combination through a coworker for iced matcha with brown sugar syrup and cold foam that she loves.
Certainly, complicated drinks ordered during a rush are going to frustrate the workers if it means that it slows things down. I worked at a Starbucks as a teenager in the late ’90s, and my experience was that when orders get delayed, customers get snippy to the staff. The actual labor of putting several different liquids in a cup isn’t really so bad — it’s the rude customers that can make the job suck.
Starbucks, which will turn 50 this year, offered its first customization in 1984: skim milk by request for lattes. The Frappuccino launched in 1995; the ur-basic signifier Pumpkin Spice Latte debuted in 2003. Strategically, Starbucks started expanding its food menu in the 2000s, including premade sandwiches that catered to both a lunch crowd and an expanding business in rest stops and other locations outside of city blocks and/or suburban town centers. (In 2012, Starbucks bought a popular chain of bakeries in the Bay Area — some speculated just to get the recipes.)
“Who even drinks hot coffee anymore, ya know?”
In many ways, the “Edward” is just a blip in a decadeslong fight for the soul of Starbucks, and what exactly it is. To many Gen X’ers, Starbucks in the ’90s was a symbol of corporate evils, a chain with middle-class pretensions (“venti”) replacing real, authentic coffee shops. By the ’00s, a massive Starbucks cup had become a signifier of class and gender, like oversize sunglasses or a purse dog (a grad student could write a dissertation on the difference between paparazzi photos of Britney Spears and Mary-Kate Olsen with their massive cups in the late ’00s versus Ben Affleck and his quarantine Dunkin’ orders). Starbucks isn't just coffee; it’s a constantly evolving presence in American culture. Love it or hate it, you’ll still use its bathrooms.
Starbucks itself is perfectly fine with elaborate drink orders. It doesn’t track data on the number of customizations that people make for orders through the app or in stores, so it’s impossible to know just how TikTok-inspired drinks it’s sold in the last year, or even if customization overall has increased.
Erin Shane Riley, a spokesperson for Starbucks, told BuzzFeed News that custom orders going viral predated TikTok. “Secret menu” items went viral on Instagram and Pinterest, to the point that in 2016 Starbucks officially added “Pink Drink” (strawberry acai Refresher with coconut milk) to the menu. The corporate HQ is certainly aware of which drinks go viral on TikTok and how popular it is on the app. “TikTok is a great way to listen to our customers,” said Riley.
The pandemic accelerated changes in Starbucks’ footprint, adding drive-thrus and more curbside service (it expected 2,000 curbside locations by the end of 2021). It’s also creating something totally new to go with the mobile app: physical locations just for picking up mobile app orders — no café seating or walking in and ordering from a menu.
It expanded its food menu to compete with other lunch places, and added more and more noncoffee drinks like the fruity “Refreshers” and more iced teas. Noncoffee drinks appeal to teenagers and young people who are less likely to drink coffee, as well as attracting afternoon and evening customers who want a sweet treat and aren’t just looking for caffeine.
As for what Starbucks is now, the most telling indicator is a milestone: As of December 2020, Starbucks announced that iced drinks outsold hot drinks — even in winter.
Those sweet drinks like the “Edward” — fruity teas and lemonades, caramel crunch Frappuccinos, or iced white mochas — are the current form of Starbucks. It’s no longer a coffee place.
To measure the distance between where it was and where it is, consider this: In a TikTok where Anna Sitar asked a Starbucks employee to make her whatever drink they wanted, she’s disappointed to realize they gave her a hot drink. In the comments, one fan wrote, “who even drinks hot coffee anymore, ya know?”