Tuesday, September 16, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: There is No Free Breakfast

by Jaime

Last week I got the chance to represent CHG at the Starbucks Better Breakfast Hour, a blogger event described to us as “the opportunity to chat with other bloggers about breakfast trends and the importance of starting off your morning with a healthy routine,” but, let’s be honest, I saw as, “ooh, free breakfast and maybe I’ll meet Adam Roberts.”

Adam Roberts wasn’t there but Ed Levine was! And he was awesome. And there was also a lot of breakfasty food to try and good conversation on healthy vs. healthier, and a lot of me thinking about marketing. And I got a free Americano. (The thing about Starbucks generously upgrading your tall Americano to a grande is that while that’s nice and all, it also means you’re getting double the caffeine! Woo!)

The caffeine high’s worn off by now, though, so let’s look at Starbucks’ “healthy” breakfast options. I don’t know how many of you go into Starbucks with any regularity – while delicious and convenient, it’s rarely healthy or cheap – but if you’ve been in, you’ve probably seen these new residents of the bakery case. As they made their way around our Better Breakfast Hour Table, I took a judicious sampling of each (and photos!).

The Apple Bran Muffin is a little too sweet (and I like sweet!) but decently tasty, with big, juicy raisins outnumbering apple pieces.

The Berry Stella, despite a promising name and shape, is dry and disappointing, though real fresh berries on top are a nice, tart touch.

The Chewy Fruit & Nut Bar is a decent chewy granola bar thing.

The Perfect Oatmeal is oatmeal. The topping options – dried berries, mixed nuts, brown sugar – are all tasty, but instant oatmeal is instant oatmeal, and I’d rather make it at home for 35 cents.

Starbucks also offers a Protein Plate, comprising a small whole wheat bagel, a hardboiled egg, some grapes and apple slices, a piece of cheese, and peanut butter. I didn’t taste it, but it looks like one of the more legitimately healthy options, with fruit and protein and healthy fats. I was frustrated that the other “healthy options” were just healthified versions of the usual sugar-bombs. I’m all for the occasional sugar-bomb, don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather splurge for a brownie than think that adding inulin and whatever sort of protein to a muffin makes it something other than a muffin.

That’s when I got thinking about marketing. One of the Starbucks representatives said something like, “We wanted to come up with healthy, wholesome foods.” But what I really think was going on was, “We want to come up with foods that we can market as healthy.” They’re not lying about anything – the apple muffin is lower in calories than other muffins, all of these foods are free of artificial sweeteners, and those are good things. But take for example the Multigrain Roll. It is, in the brave words of Ed Levine, “just a bad roll.” But is there something about a dry whole grain roll covered in mysterious, exotic seeds that makes you feel like you’re eating something healthy? “Oh,” we think to ourselves, “this must be better for me than the muffin. It’s not sweet! It’s not fun!” And then we feel like we’ve eaten something healthy.

But would any manufacturer who is actually concerned about health add sugar to almond butter? I actually can’t begin to parse the motives behind that one small action, but it’s been worrying away at my brain. I was so excited that almond butter was an option. Starbucks could’ve copped out with a squeeze packed of peanut butter, but they went the healthier and more exciting route. And then added maple syrup.

The conversation around the table was pretty split between the mom-bloggers and the foodies. (There was also a fitness blogger/personal trainer, but I didn’t hear much from her.) The moms were psyched for the healthier options for them and their kids – convenience and “better than pound cake” ruled. The foodies’ discerning palates were not pleased with Starbucks’ new creations.

I was somewhere in between. Some of the food – hi, Multigrain Roll, I’m looking at you – wasn’t worth eating, but some was tasty, and a healthier option than other Starbucks fare. But I keep coming back to healthy (what Starbucks is calling the new menu) versus healthier. If I want healthy, I want real, whole foods, eggs and bananas and vegetables. And it’s the fantastic bonus that those foods, when they come from my kitchen, are cheap, too! I could assemble my own version of Starbucks’ protein plate for probably a tenth of the cost.

What do you think? When does convenience win out for you? Do you want healthier food at Starbucks, or a decadent chocolate brownie?

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Natalie said...

Interesting post. I guess I am not easily duped, because I would never think of Starbucks food as "healthy", but more of a a "healthier indulgence". For instance, I have gotten the Berry Stella a few times and really like it. It's not "healthy", but a nice once a week treat that doesn't totally throw nutrition out the window. While Starbucks would hope consumers disagree, everyone should be eating most of their meals from home with whole foods like you mentioned and eating out on occassion for fun and variety.

Jessie said...

If I'm going to go to Starbucks, it's for a big, sugary, frothy treat which I want along with a big, sugary, rich and chewy treat. If I want something healthy(ier) on the go I usually head to some sort of juice bar or to the grocery store to get fruit.

Ambitious said...

Hi Jaime! I'm always am reminded of the times when I'm traveling and all I see at rest stops are Burger King and Roy Rogers.

I'm thankful to even have "healthy" options when I'm traveling! At least then, I could opt for a protein plate.

But you're right- how many people will think something is healthy because it looks or sounds like it should be? Sad to say, but you can't really trust marketing anymore. Always look at the ingredients when possible!

Brigid said...

I eat Starbucks food about once a week, usually when I'm too rushed in the morning to pack a lunch or snack. I'm not deluding myself that it's as healthy as a homemade muffin, but it is healthier than most of the other food available. I agree that the whole-grain roll isn't great, but I liked the maple syrup in the almond butter—it's an interesting combination.

Actually, one of their healthiest choices isn't on this list—the fruit and cheese plate, which includes small portions of three kinds of cheese (cheddar, herb jack, and brie), half an apple, some grapes, and date-nut bread. Yes, I could put that together at home for pennies, but the fact is that I don't always have time, and it's nice to have the healthy option. Given a choice between being clobbered on price and eating crap, or being clobbered on price and eating something pretty good, well, pass the fruit and cheese, please.