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The Visitor Centre today is ... Starbucks Reserve Roastery, Chicago

We visit the largest Starbucks in the world, a multi-sensory cathedral of coffee.

Love them or loathe them, Starbucks have taken the coffee industry by storm and are the largest coffeehouse chain, and one of the most recognizable brands in the world. The $24 billion Starbucks brand buys approximately 3% of the world’s coffee output and works with 400,000 farmers in over 30 countries.

Full disclosure, I'm a northern lass, who loves nothing better than a cup of Yorkshire tea, no milk, no sugar. I will admit that it took me until 7 years ago to even enjoy coffee. I was converted thanks to an independent roastery, Unorthodox Roasters, which opened up in our small home town in Scotland. A cup of joe is not an everyday drink for me, but it is for millions of others. I prefer it as a treat, usually seeking out independent roasteries. I can respect the craft and enjoy a bit of coffee shop design with a side of artisanal baked goods. To make matters worse folks, I only drink decaf!

I might not be the target market and therefore potentially not the strongest advocate for Starbucks, but even I have travelled to Seattle, so I could go to the first store, just across from Pike Place Market, and I have visited the Reserve Roasteries in Tokyo, Milan, and New York, along with this one in Chicago.

I am a huge fan of the designer behind the Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, the legendary Liz Muller. I included her work in my degree studies and have reported on her designs throughout my consultation work with design houses and brands worldwide.

I headed to Chicago to see what the largest of all the Reserve Roasteries would reveal and found a multi-sensory coffee mecca that delivered a bag full of design inspiration.

The brand history

Starbucks had humble beginnings in Seattle, USA. In 1971, three friends, Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker, opened the first Starbucks store in Seattle's historic Pike Place Market. Initially, the store was a small roastery that sold high-quality coffee beans and equipment for brewing at home.

Fun Fact - The name "Starbucks" was inspired by the novel "Moby-Dick." Starbuck is the fictional first mate of the ship Pequod in the 1851 novel by Herman Melville.

The turning point for Starbucks came in 1982, when Howard Schultz joined as the Director of Retail Operations and Marketing. On a buying trip to Milan, Italy, Schultz was inspired by the city's espresso café culture and saw the potential to replicate it in the United States. His vision was to transform Starbucks into a gathering place, offering not just coffee, but an experience, a concept that revolutionized the coffee industry.

"I stepped across the threshold and was swept into a world of coffee and community." (Howard Schultz, Starbucks 2018)

In 1987, Schultz acquired Starbucks from the original owners and began expanding aggressively. The company went public in 1992, and throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Starbucks underwent rapid expansion both within the United States and internationally. The company focused on creating a consistent brand identity and customer experience across its locations. The iconic green and white logo, along with their distinctive interior design, featuring comfortable seating and modern aesthetics, became synonymous with the Starbucks experience. There were 35,711 Starbucks stores worldwide in 2022 and they have doubled their number of stores globally over the last ten years.

Even global behemoths such as Starbucks have faced challenges in recent years. The competition saw new opportunities and exploited emerging concepts, such as online ordering and delivery. Starbucks were forced to up their game and look for strategic revenue boosters. Underperforming stores were closed and staff laid off across the world. The brand closed all of its mall-based Teavana units and as consumer demands changed, Starbucks had to pivot to address a loss of foot fall and the realisation that they were now seen as just ordinary. They had to do something to stand out from the crowd.

Schultz opened the doors of the first Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle on December 5, 2014, an elevated concept store that set itself out as a theatre of coffee and offered an immersive experience that took customers on a journey spanning the bean roasting process, through grinding and on to brewing. 

The Reserve Roasteries are not your average Starbucks store. More akin to a Willy Wonka factory for coffee, they were intended to elevate the standard Starbucks experience. They would seduce you with offerings you can't get in any of their other stores, coffee infused cocktails, ice cream creations and products from Rocco Princi’s bakery in Milan. The brand wanted to dip its toes in the luxury market, a sector which was turning to more experiential concepts.

"The Roastery is an opportunity to showcase the finest and rarest coffees from around the world. We show the customer the green beans, and share the experience of what happens when a bean is roasted, and serve the freshest coffee, which can be brewed in various flavors. We’re taking innovation to new levels, from the finest bakeries from Milan to stretch cocktails and aperitivos." (Cliff Burrows, group president of Starbucks Siren Retail, Forbes, 2019)

The sheer cost of design and build for the Roasteries is eye watering and the brand are looking to their balance sheets before opening more, hoping to turn a profit in a challenging economic climate. Consumer demands are changing faster than ever and in the face of a range of global macroeconomic demands, staffing shortages and rising energy costs, the ambitious and expansive Roasteries come at a cost. You can't get a Willy Wonka experience on a shoestring budget.

Consumer demand though for fast food has remained resilient and has given brands room to review their future plans. With delivery and take away on the rise, how do big bricks and mortar locations fare? Doubling down on in store experience is key, as is providing design led, screen worthy interiors and products to swoon over. The Roastery can also be seen as a cultural and community hub.

Kevin Johnson, who replaced Howard Schultz as CEO in 2016 as Schultz assumed the title of chairman emeritus, scaled back Schultz's aim to open 1,000 Starbucks Reserve retail concepts, including 20 of the larger Roasteries by the end of 2019. This shift in focus has cemented the point of difference model that the Starbucks Roastery occupies. They might be popping up in major cities across the world, but keeping their numbers low means that they still have an air of exclusivity.

The Visitor Centre design

In 2012, Starbucks opened a new concept store, in Amsterdam, housed in a 430 square meter space which was formerly a historic bank vault. Designed by Dutch-born Liz Muller, this was a space not just for coffee but to tap into the consumer trends of the day, the slow food movement, quality, hyper local design, craftsmanship, community gathering spaces and on-site experiential retail.

I, like many design students of the time, included the store in many a design research study and I even made the trip to see the store in person, making my way through an anti-capitalism march that had effectively barricaded the entrance to the store. Squeezing past the protestors, I spent a leisurely hour drinking my coffee and taking pictures and notes on the design, in a near deserted store, exiting when the protest moved to the nearby McDonald's.

But that was over ten years ago, and in this fast paced world of changing consumer demands, the Reserve Roastery concept was born. Customers wanted even more experience, transparency, theatre, small batch coffee, social media opportunities, minority recognition, all the while surrounded by luxury on a budget that did not create a barrier to entry.

The Starbucks Reserve Roastery Chicago is massive. The 35,000-square-foot space, opened in November 2019, was the company’s sixth roastery. Housed in a five-story building at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Erie Street, along the famous Magnificent Mile, known for its high-end shopping, hotels, and trendy eateries, the Roastery has been built inside what was formerly the Crate & Barrel flagship store. It employs around 200 workers, baristas, mixologists, bakers, roasters and more. And it's busy. Reserve Roasteries attract as many as 8,000 customers a day, according to Starbucks.

Jill Enomoto, a Starbucks vice president, was the lead designer for the 43,000 square foot Chicago store, building on the architectural character of the original store, which closed in 2018, a victim of changing retail habits. Enomoto has worked with Liz Muller on the Roastery designs since 2014.

The building was not chosen at random. Before Howard Schultz opened his first Starbucks in Seattle, he was a salesman for a Swedish housewares company called Hammarplast and had met the founder of Crate & Barrel, Gordon Segal at his Chicago headquarters. Segal's flagship store on Michigan Avenue was his architectural passion project and no doubt he was devastated to see its demise. At another chance meeting in 2016 Segal told Schultz about the site and 8 months later Starbucks signed the lease.

Refreshingly Starbucks has not plastered the exterior or interior with the company’s ubiquitous green-and-white siren logo. None of the signage is in your face. This is a quieter aesthetic where the focus is on the activity within the store.

First Floor

Step inside and you’re immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of coffee and surrounded by a multi textural wealth of design details. Guests line up to sample classic espresso drinks from the Reserve Coffee Bar.

Burlap sacks of unroasted beans are stacked beside the gleaming coffee roaster, a Probat P25-2, which churns away, roasting small batch coffee on site and releases the enticing roasted coffee aroma across the first floor of the store. They roast around 200,000 pounds of coffee beans a year. The roasters explain the process and show guests beans if they are interested.

One of my favourite design details at each of the Roasteries, is the old-fashioned, clacker board that tells you what coffees are being roasted that day. The sound is quite hypnotic.

Each Starbucks Roastery has a unique cask as its centrepiece. Comparable to the stills found in whisky distilleries, the large vessels are where coffee beans go through de-gassing following the roasting process. They form a beacon to draw guests in and are a mix of form and function.

The Chicago roastery needed a cask that would create a showpiece in a 5 storey void. A 56-foot steel and aluminium cask, with a perforated bronze finish, does the job perfectly. Beans trickle through the network of pipes going through the cask, a sound that permeates the store.

All of the beans roasted on site are fed along sinuous, air-powered tubes to silos behind the coffee bars on each floor. Guests can hear and see the beans moving through the pipes. It is great fun.

The Roastery offers seven different brewing methods, including the classic French press to the more flamboyant siphon and several brews are exclusive to the Chicago venue. There are seasonal brews and bakes too to look out for. There are even coffee flights, where you get the opportunity to compare and contrast different brews and flavour profiles, and my recommendation would be to add the chocolate truffles they offer, from local master chocolatier Frans Bigelow. Delicious.

Encircling the cask is a curved escalator, a Mid West novelty, which takes visitors from the first to the second floor. It took 18 months to manufacture, but in reality it only curves round a quarter of the central cask and is usually filled with people taking social media reels.

The skylights throw light into the space, on even the greyest Chicago day.

Winters can be brutal in Chicago, but the fire was still going strong in July.

The retail space is small here on the first floor. Well curated and clutter free, it offers local and ethical products alongside branded merchandise such as coffee tumblers, T-shirts, and coffee paraphernalia. There is a further small retail space on the fourth floor. You might happen across the drink's trolley sometimes offering free samples, like we did. As with all the other Roasteries I have visited, there is a bit of a lack of staff members on the shop floor to help guests with their purchases. They very much leave you to your own devices, which is better than being too in your face, but sometimes you just need a welcome hand.

It is always nice to see products made by the communities where the coffee is harvested from. Having the labelling tell their story also created a deeper connection.

I was taken by some rather fabulous jackets, a biodegradable blazer made from old coffee sacks and a bomber jacket with artwork by local artist David Anthony Geary.

I would have loved one of the Chicago throws, made by Faribault Mill, but couldn't quite stretch my budget to $225. I did pick up a few mugs and beans that I fitted into my suitcase for the trip home.

Second Floor - Princi Bakery & Cafe

On the second floor you find the cast iron ovens of the Princi Bakery & Café. Here you can pick up a variety of pastries, pizza, salad, pasta, and desserts. The Italian artisan baker Rocco Princi, who opened his first bakery in Milan in 1986, offers his signature artisanal baked goods to all new Starbucks Roastery locations.

The focaccia slices are pretty good, and we've had them in Milan and New York.

A multistorey dumb waiter transports the baked goods between floors.

If you are lucky you will find a seat straight away, but be prepared to be patient. I plumped for a lasagne at $10, which came in a black cast iron skillet, was piping hot and rather good, though we did have to wait a little while. I wanted a wine to go with it, bottles of which adorned the bar, but was told that for wine you had to go to another floor. Carrying two of these and coffees proved a tad heavy too and the wine would have to wait.

For research purposes we moved around the store and opted for a pastry too, a delicious flaky Cornetto.

Third floor - Experimental Coffee Bar

Up on the 3rd floor is the Experimental Coffee Bar filled with relaxed leather chairs and low tables, inviting you to stay a while. This serves many of the same brews and bakes as on the ground floor, but it is here that you get the siphon flight.

I picked up a bag of Starbucks Reserve Knob Creek Bourbon Whiskey Barrel aged beans after tasting a brew made here. We can always make room for more beans in our suitcase.

If you want something more personal, then check out one of their 4 private tours and experiences. Sadly not available when I visited, guests can choose between a cocktail masterclass, an up-close look at the roasting process, or discover more about the architectural design of the Roastery. The tours cost upwards of $45 per person.

Fourth floor - Arraviamo Coffee Bar

On the 4th floor you'll find the Arraviamo Bar, an area of all the Roasteries that is always extremely busy in our experience.

They serve red, white, sparkling, and rosé wine by the glass and by the bottle, beer and signature and classic cocktails, based around the culture of Chicago, such as the Roastery Boilermaker and Union Stock. I've had their seasonal espresso martinis in Milan and they were very good. They offer flights of cocktails and whisky barrel aged cold brews and sell pizza and charcuterie platters, which you call follow with a curated range of desserts such as Tiramisu and Cannoli. Cocktails cost around $14 to $16 each. The old fashioned was surprisingly good.

Keeping it local

Each roastery has a signature coffee card wall, displaying the name of the city.

Starbucks reached out to local and minority artists and commissioned African American, Chicago based artist, David Anthony Geary, to design the unique Siren mural displayed on the third level of the Roastery. The design blends line work with a reflective surface which catches the sun from the skylight.

Eulojio Ortega, nicknamed “The Chicago Muralist,” provided another mural, paying tribute to the farmers and coffee-growing regions of the world. The mural spans all five floors and entices guests up to the different bars.

The Roastery has nods to the local community all over the building, from wall art to Chicago themed merchandise.

The Chicago Exclusive offerings in store extend to 4 exclusive cocktails, using spirits from the likes of award winning Koval vodka, the first distillery to open in Chicago since the mid-1800s.

The little details

Now for the bits that most people might walk past, but that designers like me droll over. Seating comes in a few Scandi styles. Chairs of soft, white oak, with organic forms come from BassamFellows of New Canaan, Connecticut.

The tactile wooden block effect bar fascia is something I am even trying to replicate in my own home, I loved it that much. Apparently it is made from 22 different types of tiles.

And the shelf detailing is exquisite.

Railings are wrapped in hand-stitched leather. Even something as mundane as trash and tray points are housed in curvaceous cabinetry.

The jade green ceiling is inspired by the coffee plant, in five shades, getting darker the further it gets from the cask. Shards of bronze and brass symbolize the rays of sun over the coffee farms. The ceiling is practical too, incorporating HVAC, Wi-Fi, lighting and more.

The pipes transporting coffee beans across the Roastery will have engineers drooling.

The pneumatic systems are sculptural as much as for spectacle. It can prove to be quite hypnotising. The brand calls them 'Symphony Piping' and you literally hear the beans whip along above your head.

Even the ice cubes in your cocktail reinforce the subtle, premium brand message.

The brand storytelling

Dotted throughout the store are simply executed, educational displays, telling the story of the brand, its suppliers, the coffee making process and the characteristics and tasting guides to their coffee.

The various educational elements allow the brand to convey their ethos, especially surrounding sustainability and ethical practices, important in a world where big brand coffee production certainly has its decriers.

Another column tells visitors about the Starbuck's visitor centre in Costa Rica, somewhere I hope to visit one day.

The coaster art describes various brewing methods, classic cocktails, Italian food and drink terminology and provides a colourful backdrop.

What could do with a little more highlighting in store is that Starbucks run 350 of their Illinois locations, including this Roastery, with 100% renewable energy generated by wind power.

Rooftop terrace

I'm told the fifth floor is a rooftop terrace, with incredible Michigan Avenue views. I'll have to take their word for it, as it was closed off when I visited.

The space is not huge, only open seasonally and I could imagine it fills up quickly.

There was a small frame that held information on what sort of events could be hosted at the store, from personal shopping, team building and cocktail masterclasses.

In conclusion

What I usually ask of a coffee shop is cosiness, accustomed as I am to the hygge I get in my favourite local and Copenhagen spots for example, moody lighting, sofas and staff that know me. This is not exactly that vibe. But, for all it's size and polish, it did provide a few hours of comfortable dwell time and some sensory hits that, when paired with some fabulous design details, made for a very enjoyable few hours.

Each of the staff members we encountered were courteous and happy to explain their roles and tell me snippets of product and brand information. Like Tokyo and Milan, it was clean and tidy, which New York's location sadly was not. A few electrical outlets and charging points would be welcome so we can recharge phones.

If you want a quick cup of coffee then be patient. It gets very busy indeed and the wait times are often long. It is pricier than you'd expect from a regular Starbucks, but this is a treat, not an everyday coffee hangout.

If marketing nowadays is all about short form video social sharing, then what we witnessed was a brand home run. The store has enough tricks and ambience to give a good deal of content and there were certainly plenty of folk creating it. Battle past the influencers filming everything from a siphon pour to an escalator ride, and you will find a decent amount of brand storytelling here. The focus on craft in the materials, design and process, elevates what is often seen as ordinary and places the Roasteries into a more premium brand experience marketplace. The store successfully shows how you can take the Starbucks beans and use them in different ways, from cocktails to ice cream and beyond.

As for dwell time, I was certainly engaged enough with the design to spend a few hours quality time here. I'm not going to be drawn into a debate on Starbuck's practices, either labour or ethical, but like many big brands across a range of industries, they have to accept that the consumer is now demanding greater transparency than ever before.

The brand home, the Roastery in this case, gives the brand the opportunity to connect on a deeper level with their customers. This is no drive thru coffee spot. There is dwell time here to subtly address consumer concerns, educate the customer and promote the brand's responsibility message and to prove how they can embrace change. Increasingly brand messages need to be real, robust, relevant and up for reform.

As for advocacy, I've never recommended a regular Starbuck's store, but this Roastery, plus all but one of the others, I have advised people to visit, designers or not.

I'll still shop local and drink at the smaller independents, but this flagship proved a Grande cup of joy.

How long was the visit?

We were there for 2 hours.

How much did it cost to visit?

We paid for our own food and drinks and this was not part of any advertising.

Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary.

When we visited the Roastery was open until 11pm, however this does change with the seasons and right now, in January, they are open Monday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.

They offer discounted parking at InterPark: 50 East Ohio St, for up to 4 hours for $13 with a validated ticket, which the staff in the retail space will arrange for you.

Address: 646 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611


Where we stayed:

We were based in Chicago for 4 nights at a fabulous hotel found through, the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Chicago, in an Essential King Room with River View. We had room for our multiple suitcases and a window seat overlooking the river with an amazing view. It was very quiet and we had a lovely breakfast every morning and can highly recommend the blueberry pancakes with bacon. We would stay there again in a heartbeat.

A bonus was the free drinks every evening in reception.

Getting here:

We were on a 3 week road trip from Atlanta to Detroit with multiple stops in between.

We flew in and out of the US on Delta from Edinburgh, Scotland.

Driving into Chicago has its challenges. Not only is there a lot of traffic. but the GPS we bought from home stopped working when it encountered city streets that head underground. Also those underground streets are directly below other streets, so the GPS got very confused. Thankfully we deposited the car in the hotel car park and left it there during our city break and found Chicago very walkable. It's a fabulous destination and we will return.

What else is there to see close by:

One of the highlights of our trip was to scare ourselves silly on The Ledge on the Skydeck of the Willis Tower. The glass balcony extends 4 four terrifying feet outside the building's 103rd floor. Not one for those with vertigo. The Ledge is just one part of the tower visit, as there is exhibition and retail space.

Chicago has so much to see and a simple and cost effective experience is to just wander the streets and soak up the architecture, design and art. We stumbled across terrific street art, an orchestral rehearsal and some fabulous gardens, a wonderful river walk and none of it cost anything at all.

Visited: July 2022

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise

Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please drink responsibly. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.


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