Contestants shouted with joy while the audience chanted, whistled and held up signs for their favorites. "Jami Cox Rocks! " "Vote 4 Ryan"...

Share story

Contestants shouted with joy while the audience chanted, whistled and held up signs for their favorites.

“Jami Cox Rocks!”

“Vote 4 Ryan”


Legal? Right. As hyped and happy as the vibe was on Wednesday afternoon, it was not another episode of “American Idol.”

It was Starbucks’ Ambassador Cup for headquarter employees, which determines who among its accountants, service reps and supply-chain managers is the best coffee expert.

The show began with general counsel Paula Boggs rocking the headquarters atrium with a jazzy tune she wrote herself.

Boggs warmed up the crowd for a nearly two-hour competition among 11 people from different departments whose 300-some colleagues gathered to watch and loudly lend support.

“We love you, Kristi!” someone shouted from the licensed-store-development throng. They wore blue T-shirts silk-screened with Kristi Gembolish’s picture.

“It’s definitely a status thing. It’s the highest level you can achieve,” explained Linda Wilson, a manager in Gembolish’s department. “For at least three months, we’ve been doing coffee tastings and quizzing her and talking about coffee.”

Noise from fans had no effect on the contest’s four judges, according to judge Major Cohen, who works in Starbucks’ coffee department.

In fact, many of the points were determined before Wednesday at pre-event competitions in which contestants made espresso drinks, answered geography questions and tried to identify coffees in a blind taste test.

Contestants agreed that the taste test was the hardest part.

“I was shaking while I tasted the coffee, because I’m representing food service and I didn’t want to screw it up,” said winner Jami Cox, an inside sales representative who has worked at Starbucks for 10 years.

Cox won a trip to visit the Costa Rican farms where Starbucks buys much of its coffee.

She also might talk to the media, do coffee tastings with visiting dignitaries and help coordinate other events during the next year or so, said Scott McMartin, Starbucks’ director of coffee-and-tea education and green-coffee sustainability.

“A litmus test for me in developing the curriculum are what questions I get asked by friends and family about the coffee world,” McMartin said.

Starbucks holds Ambassador Cup contests in irregular intervals.

Some are regional, and others are countrywide. The headquarters event has been held three times.

Starbucks’ first Ambassador Cup was in 2001 in Japan as part of the “coffee master program” that teaches employees about coffee and Starbucks. Those who complete the program are rewarded with coveted black aprons and are often called “black aprons.”

Coffee ambassadors receive brown aprons to signify their even higher level of Starbucks knowledge. Everyone in Wednesday’s contest wore brown aprons, because they had won smaller competitions this spring that made them coffee ambassadors from their departments.

About a third of Starbucks’ 3,500 headquarters employees are coffee masters or “black aprons.” Only 27 are coffee ambassadors.

One real-life ambassador made an appearance at the Ambassador Cup on Wednesday.

“Starbucks is indeed a company with a soul. We love you,” said Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States who was in Seattle to talk to CEO Howard Schultz and others about the company’s efforts to promote Ethiopian coffee and its plans to open a farmer-support center in Ethiopia this year.

Shortly after he spoke, the Starbucks Choir led the audience in a java-themed version of “It’s a Small World” called “It’s a Coffee World After All.”

Contestant Susan Shindell said she studied for the competition at lunch and during her Sound Transit commute during the past few months. An IT worker who has worked for Starbucks since 1988, she also held a study hall with her fellow contestants last week.

The process “has made me so much more proud of who we are, and I was already proud,” Shindell said. “It’s been an incredible journey.”

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or