One of the worst-kept secrets of the past few years is that McDonald’s has been trying to get into the espresso business. Today, news services such as Reuters and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that McDonald’s plans to launch coffee bars with the new employee position of “barista”: McDonald’s coffee bars to take on Starbucks: report | Reuters.

Undoubtedly, McDonald’s will hire or convert thousands minimum wage employees who couldn’t tell a robusta from a McSkillet, give them about two hours of training, and place them behind boxy, push-button, superautomated espresso machines producing paper cups full of a rather watered-down, ashy brew that barely resembles espresso. In turn, some of them will then master the art of “dishwater” milk frothing and graduate to making cappuccinos and lattes. In other words, McDonald’s is going to follow in Starbucks‘ footsteps.

Well, more power to the clown. Even if we still think McDonald’s is misguided in trying to refashion Ronald into a Happy-Meal-peddling pusher of lowest common denominator espresso. Starbucks, who in the past has verbally invited the McDonald’s challenge, will now truly discover how far their espresso quality — and ability to differentiate their product — has fallen after years of massive tradeoffs made to support their insanely ambitious expansion plans. Maybe not enough to shake off Starbucks’ most loyal customers, but enough to keep them bleeding. (Though if McDonald’s adds Wi-Fi at their Playlands, who knows?)

The downside is that we’re not looking forward to having to sample a few of McDonald’s offerings — the sacrifice required for the sake of research and completeness of our database of comparative espresso reviews. Well, that and paper-hatted employees with bad acne telling us in their pubescent cracking voices, “Would you like four pumps of vanilla and caramel syrup with that?”

'Pssst! Hey kid! Wanna McLatte? The first one is free.'

UPDATE: 4:15pm PST
Now that Jim Donald got the axe as Starbucks CEO, with chairman Howard Schultz to replace him, this just got more interesting: Starbucks Founder Returns as Chief – New York Times. Starbucks shareholders are pinning their hopes that Schultz is the coffee industry’s equivalent to Steve Jobs.

Now just because their national holiday ad campaign has ended, don’t think that Starbucks has given up their Pass The Cheer spirit. They will Pay It Forward on Mr. Donald’s golden parachute for some time to come.