Starbucks executives bristle at the suggestion that their corporation represents the fast food of coffee. (This despite lamenting memos from the chairman to the contrary.) But when was the last time Starbucks made a corporate decision that favored quality over quantity?

Case and point … the new chocolate partnership Starbucks announced this week: Starbucks, Hershey to offer coffee-flavored chocolate products in the U.S. – International Herald Tribune. Starbucks claims this deal will help them better pursue customers “looking for indulgence”. But indulgence from Hershey’s? Those “artisans” of assembly-line milk chocolate, who brought us the ubiquitous mega packs of fun size candy bars given away for free every Halloween? Well, perhaps if by “indulgence” they mean a Triple Whopper with cheese

(OK, some of you chocolate aficionados will cite Hershey’s 2005 purchase of Scharffen Berger, but buying quality doesn’t count. Just look at what Starbucks did with the acquisition of Torrefazione Italia. Scharffen Berger fans are still dismayed by the sell-out.)

Starbucks acts as if they’re on a relentless mission to erode the quality promise their brand established over a decade ago — from weaker and weaker coffee standards, to drive-thru outlets found in gas stations, to downmarket partnering with America’s greatest purveyor of quantity-over-quality chocolate. If Starbucks brushes off the threat of coffee competitors in the fast food industry, why do they seem hell bent on becoming indistinguishable from their fast food “non-competitors”? (Archrivals storm Starbucks – BusinessWeek Online – MSNBC.com.)

Meanwhile in the news, financial analysts suspect that Starbucks will need to raise their prices once again to improve their flagging operating margins (and stagnant stock price): Price of your caffeine fix at Starbucks could be headed higher. These are rough times to be a Starbucks shareholder. Perhaps their only hope now is for Verismo to make a superautomatic espresso machine with a giant clown head that will take your double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato order.

Nothing says 'quality' like a non-breakable plastic squeeze bottle

UPDATE: July 24, 2007
Sure enough, Starbucks announced yesterday that it plans to raise prices 9 cents this month: Starbucks raises beverage prices 9 cents – USATODAY.com. Operating profit margins and same store sales must definitely be hurting at the company.