Until recently, each reduced-fat latte at Starbucks was its own unique blend. Baristas poured a little from the whole-milk jug and a little...

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Until recently, each reduced-fat latte at Starbucks was its own unique blend.

Baristas poured a little from the whole-milk jug and a little from the skim-milk bottle until one-of-a-kind fat reduction was achieved. “They kind of eyeballed it,” admits Michelle Gass, senior vice president of food and product for the Seattle coffee-shop chain.

Now Starbucks’ U.S. and Canadian stores are getting their own bottles of reduced-fat milk, like most American households.

The Seattle company decided that if consumers prefer 2 percent milk in their home refrigerators, they’d want it in coffee shops as well. Whole and nonfat milk are still available on request, because “our role is not to institutionalize a new way for people to drink milk. It’s about customer choice,” Gass says.

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Here’s the skinny on how a company that buys millions of gallons of milk each year quickly slimmed down its drinks by adding another jug to the mix.

High-level tastings

Summer 2006

After requests from customers and employees, Starbucks decides it might be time to switch the standard milk in its lattes and other drinks from whole to reduced-fat. Corporate-level taste testing begins. Executives are surprised that they notice little difference between coffee drinks with whole vs. 2 percent milk.

Testing certain markets

January 2007

Starbucks launches a three-month test at 220 stores in Oregon, Orange County, Jacksonville and Ontario, Canada. The questions: Would Starbucks’ customers mind lattes and other drinks made with 2 percent milk unless they asked for another kind? Could baristas easily juggle a third bottle of milk?

Folks love it

April 2007

Most customers and all Starbucks’ employees loved the move. Even in Oregon, where blue and purple milk caps were sometimes confused, baristas appreciated having the reduced-fat milk on hand. Many customers didn’t realize they had been served whole milk in the first place.

The big roll-out

June 2007

Starbucks begins adding reduced-fat milk in other markets, beginning with New York City. It aims to make 2 percent milk the standard for its coffee drinks in the U.S. and Canada by the end of the year. Besides saving Starbucks a sizable chunk of money, the move has reduced the calories and fat in its drinks. A 16-ounce latte now has 30 fewer calories and 36 percent less fat than it did in the whole-milk days.

Going global

Future plans

Now the company wants to make the switch beyond its six North American milk suppliers. But messing with milk overseas could get complicated. In European Union countries, for example, reduced-fat milk has 1.5 percent butterfat — not 2 percent like here — and that could mean the difference between a creamy latte and a thin one.