Starbucks got him steamed now he fights coffee chain

June 05, 1995|By John Flinn | John Flinn,San Francisco Examiner

Jeremy Dorosin is one angry customer. All he wanted from Starbucks, he says, was a working espresso maker -- and an apology.

That was six weeks, four Wall Street Journal ads and $10,000 ago. Now Mr. Dorosin, 37, says it is going to take more to make him happy. A lot more.

"If they thought I was angry before, they have no idea how angry I am now," he said. "I'm not going to go away."

Mr. Dorosin, owner of a Walnut Creek, Calif., dive shop, has already spent $10,000 of his own money running a bitter and expensive campaign against the famous Seattle-based coffeehouse chain.

With a toll-free number publicized in ads in the Journal, he has been gathering complaints from other Starbucks customers about what he says is shoddy service and a disdainful attitude.

His threat: Either Starbucks takes out a full-page ad in the Journal apologizing to him and other customers, or he'll take out two full pages publishing the complaints he's gathered.

Starbucks says it has tried to apologize to Mr. Dorosin, but it won't do so in a full-page ad in the Journal. Spokeswoman Cheri Libby said: "We've tried to resolve this, but his demands are unreasonable."

Besides being good for the Wall Street Journal, the dispute offers important lessons for other businesses, experts say.

As consumers become increasingly vocal -- through word-of-mouth, letters to newspapers and postings on the Internet -- firms are seeking strategies to prevent small problems from escalating into major confrontations.

In the case of Mr. Dorosin and Starbucks, it's too late for that.

The dispute started in April, when Mr. Dorosin bought a $299 espresso maker for himself and a $169 model as a wedding present for a friend from the Starbucks on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, Calif.

Both machines spewed trouble. Mr. Dorosin's leaked water and would not make proper foam. Starbucks took it back and lent him another model.

The machine he bought for his friend had even bigger problems: It was rusted and, Mr. Dorosin said, missing key parts. He believes Starbucks sold him used goods.

Starbucks denies this. The company said some machines develop rust while being tested at the factory. The machine Mr. Dorosin bought, the company acknowledges, should have been cleaned. Starbucks denies that it was missing parts.

Mr. Dorosin called the store, the regional Starbucks office in San Francisco and, finally, corporate headquarters in Seattle. He demanded that Starbucks send his friend a letter of apology acknowledging it had sold a used machine. Also, he wanted Starbucks to send the bride a top-of-the-line espresso maker as an apology.

That model, said Starbucks, sells for $2,495.

Starbucks countered with an offer to replace both the espresso machines with $269 models. The company said it also offered Mr. Dorosin $30 in cash -- the difference in price between the replacement model and the one he'd bought himself. Mr. Dorosin said he was never offered the $30.

"We were certainly willing to send a letter apologizing, but we weren't going to say we sold him used goods, because that is not true," Ms. Libby, the spokeswoman, said.

Eventually, Starbucks said, the company mailed Mr. Dorosin a full refund and his friend a new espresso maker. Not good enough, said Mr. Dorosin. He and his friend returned the packages unopened. Then he threatened to take out an ad in the Wall Street Journal.

"They thought I was bluffing," Mr. Dorosin said.

He wasn't. On May 5, he bought an ad in the Journal's Northern California edition. "Had any problems at Starbucks Coffee?" it asked, and listed a toll-free number to call.

Mr. Dorosin took out a second ad in the Journal's western states edition the following week, a third the week after that and a fourth the week after that.

In addition to calls from other angry customers -- more than 3,000, he estimates -- Mr. Dorosin said he has received 300 to 400 letters and enough cash donations to keep his campaign running for a while.

Mr. Dorosin's ultimate threat: If Starbucks doesn't make him happy he vows to take out a $227,000, double full-page ad in the Journal printing many of these complaints.

"People are upset about spilled coffee, about getting regular when they ordered decaf, about being talked to rudely," Mr. Dorosin said. "These aren't just anyone complaining -- they're doctors, lawyers and CEOs."

What, exactly, does he want?

"A full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal apologizing to everyone," Mr. Dorosin said. "It's more than just about apologizing. It's about them taking responsibility for treating their customers the way they do."

Starbucks has refused to apologize in a newspaper ad. Ms. Libby said it is doing everything reasonable to resolve the problem.

Last week, Mr. Dorosin proposed that Starbucks open a center for runaway youths in San Francisco. The coffeehouse chain said no.

"We're really disappointed that our thoughtful and repeated attempts were unable to please him," Ms. Libby said. "We've tried to communicate with him, but his demands are a little unreasonable."

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