July 21, 2017 Coffee & Company

The story behind Starbucks iconic green apron

By Heidi Peiper/Starbucks Newsroom

In 75 countries around the world, the green apron is the symbol of Starbucks, signaling a warm welcome and expert coffee craft from the more than 300,000 baristas who wear one each day.

But how did the apron come to be? Why do some baristas wear black aprons? And where in the world do partners wear an orange apron?

The apron was a part of Starbucks from the first day it opened its doors in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971. Its employees wore simple brown grocer’s aprons. It was a practical uniform for these coffee experts, the same shade as the original siren logo and the whole-bean coffee they weighed and scooped each day.

William Stiles was a part-time clerk in Starbucks Capitol Hill store in 1982, arriving just a few months before executive chairman Howard Schultz joined the company.

“When I started, we had just four stores and were wearing cutoffs and flip-flops,” Stiles said. “I remember the first time I ground a bag of beans, the sensory overload of the aroma of the coffee was intoxicating. I just loved it. It was the coolest thing I had ever done.”

Starbucks 1977, photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

In 1987, Starbucks began serving handcrafted coffee and espresso beverages in its 17 locations inspired by Italian coffeehouses. These first baristas donned new aprons – now in green and with the company’s updated logo – along with crisp white shirts and black bow ties in the style of their Italian counterparts. Classical music and instrumental jazz played on a loop overhead.

This same year, Timothy Jones started at Starbucks, and soon managed the University Village store.

“Back then there were only six drinks, you couldn’t order more than that. The idea was converting people to brewing at home,” Jones said. “At my store we sold hundreds of pounds of coffee in an average week. You couldn’t buy a pound of coffee at the grocery store like today. To sell that much coffee you needed to have lots of conversations – I’d call them waltzes – with the customer. It created quite a dance floor. This is the foundation of Starbucks – this is not going back, this is who we are today.”

Jones, who came to Starbucks from a music-industry background, quickly took over programming for store music and began experimenting, ultimately creating the sound of Starbucks with an uptempo mix of artists that would come to define the coffeehouse genre.

“At first I kept the instrumental jazz, but I added in some vocals like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles,” Jones said. “Next thing you know I’m playing some Chicago Blues and Reggae. I kept expecting Howard to walk in the door asking, ‘what are you doing?’ But he never did.”

By the time Starbucks became a public company in 1992 there was a more relaxed vibe in stores, with baristas wearing aprons with the company’s updated logo on the aprons and only the occasional tie. Employees were now called “partners” in the company, sharing in the success of the company with its stock option benefit.

Michelle Dougherty, who works in Starbucks retail operations, was a barista in San Jose, Calif., in the 1990s.

“Way back when I started, we weren’t even writing on cups yet, we identified a drink by the way we laid each cup on the espresso machine,” Dougherty said.

The dress code then was also simpler.

“We wore our green apron with white, black and khaki,” she said. “I remember that your top layers always had to be the same color, you couldn’t wear a black polo shirt with a white one underneath. We were excited on the 25th anniversary when we got to wear jeans and tie-dye shirts.”

Howard Schultz with Starbucks partners in 1992

In the early 1990s Starbucks introduced black aprons as special designation for partners certified in coffee knowledge, which later became what is now the Coffee Master program for partners. And in 1997, Starbucks first red holiday cups arrived, with each store (there were about 1,400 by then) receiving two red aprons for partners who were sampling Christmas Blend or stocking merchandise.

Over the years, the apron has become a way to celebrate events and milestones and recognize partner contributions. Special embroidered aprons with an American flag celebrate veterans and military spouses and graduates of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan receive a green apron embroidered with a mortarboard. At a store in Malaysia dedicated to providing employment opportunities for Deaf partners, baristas wear aprons with the word “Starbucks” embroidered in sign language.

Colorful variations have also popped up over the years, like special orange aprons in the Netherlands to celebrate King’s Day. Others include pale blue aprons for the launch of Frappuccino Happy Hour and a rare purple apron for barista champions.

The dress code too has changed to include more freedom of expression and a wider range of colors and patterns.

“We have really embraced diversity while staying true to who we are,” said Dougherty, who was a part of the operations team that led the dress code evolution.

“You can see that every day in our partners.”

For more information on this story, contact Heidi Peiper