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EXCLUSIVE: The Birth of the Starbucks Frappuccino, Right Here in Santa Monica

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We were recently talking with Greg Rogers of the Los Angeles-based hospitality PR firm CRPR---some of his clients include Anisette and Falcon, M Café de Chaya, and Edison among others---just shooting the shit probably, but he dropped into the conversation that he created the Starbucks Frappuccino. We take anything a publicist says with a grain of salt no matter how much we like them, but he was completely serious: "No really, it's even mentioned in Howard Schultz's (Starbucks' CEO) book." The Frappuccino, the blended drink that has generated gajillions in sales for the coffee juggernaut, created here in LA, by someone we actually know? It's a story worth telling. Rogers recounts his version to us---the mixing, the methodology, some glory and the Rolex---and we bring it to you almost completely verbatim:

I was the assistant manager at the Starbucks on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. It was a supplementary job because I was doing stand up at the time. This was around 1994. I think we were like the third Starbucks in Santa Monica, and in the warm months, in summer, we noticed business would slow down considerably. I had worked at Humphrey Yogart---this was the Pinkberry of its day; we had lines out the door, celebrities, it was like the cool place---we had lots shakes and stuff, and I played around with those there. I told my Starbucks manager that we should have a frozen drink because it's so hot here and there are a lot of kids. I think I did say that Coffee Bean had one, we should have one. But I didn't go and break it down and try to figure out what was in it, I just used what we had in the store. She got permission for us to buy a blender and said to experiment to see what we could come up with.
I just used everything we had there. I had sugar, vanilla powder, half and half, the mocha mix that we use and shots of espresso right off the bar and made this formula. I played with it, kept adding sugar and vanilla and the manager loved it. It happened that the vice president of Starbucks Howard Behar was in town touring the new LA locations, and he was curious why we had a blender. We gave him the drink and he loved it, and immediately called Howard Schultz and said that we had something here. Schultz was immediately against it for two reasons: One, he had brokered a deal with Coca Cola to do a coffee coca cola drink and that was just ready to come out that year. He said that would be our cold beverage star. And two, he wasn't really into having blenders in the store, that it went against the coffee culture of Starbucks. Behar said he was willing to take the risk on just the one store, the one on the Promenade.

So I got a call at home from some lab guy in Seattle asking me to give him the specifics on how I put it all together. I went through all the steps for him. At first, I made it the hard way, first with shots off the bar, but that was too difficult. Then we made a double strength of coffee and would add the ingredients to that. About a month later, corporate made the Frappuccino in powder form and sent it to us in little packets to test. Starbucks had just bought the Coffee Connection in Boston which had a drink called the Frappuccino, so they just took that name. The marketing team sent down this giant poster board on foam cord that said "frappuccino" and we were doing a lot of sampling and giving it out. We started in June and by August it was almost 40% of our sales. By that time, we had about six stores in SM and all of them started doing it, and it became like 20% of their sales. Before it was rolled out nationally, they converted it to the liquid form that I think they still use today. Probably late fall of that year, they decided to roll it out nationally.

Because I did this all on site with their products, they got to retain the rights to the product. I got some recognition. First I got a Golden Bean award at the next manager's regional meeting, a little certificate and a golden bean lapel pin. And Schultz was there and shook my hand and said great job. As it was getting bigger and bigger, no one was communicating with me what I stood to gain from it. I was kind of avoided for awhile. And then in the spring of 1995, the Frappuccino was doing amazing numbers, in some people's minds it made Starbucks more acceptable to the public. It wasn't just for coffee snobs any more. It opened it up to a whole other audience than their initial target. That's when I got a bonus check for $5000, presented at another regional meeting. The fact that I was still an assistant manager and in acting school, it kind of gave me immunity. I didn't have to deal with any of the problems the other managers did. I was kind of feared by the district managers because I was the 'frappuccino guy'.

Then Schulz wrote the book "Pour Your Heart into It : How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time," and he lists me, but they were very conscious to put me next to my manager and district manager; they couldn't just say it was one person. And then one day I noticed that my district manager showed up with new gold Rolex watch. She said she got it at the national conference in Seattle for the Frappuccino, and I threw a fit. She contacted her boss, and that was when I realized the power of the Frappuccino: A week later I was working at the kiosk in the Beverly Center, and the manager showed up with a Rolex for me. With some of the initial money that I got, I bought a car. At the time, in typical fashion, I had accumulated lots of parking tickets. Only a month of having my car, I had a boot on it. I hocked the Rolex to pay the tickets.

Ah, Starbucks. They giveth, and they taketh away. This gives so much insight to how the company was run from day one. Schultz is now calling their next big secret frozen drink (about to drop in California this summer) as "the next Frappuccino." Personally, we never liked the Frappuccino. Too gloopy in texture.