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4 Hard-to-Believe Starbucks Facts

Daniel B. Kline, The Motley Fool

Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) has become one of the best-known brands not just in the United States but all over the world. In fact, it's hard to travel the world without seeing one of the company's 24,000 locations spread across 75 different markets.

Because the coffee chain has become so ubiquitous, it's easy to assume you know everything about it. But when a company traces its history back to 1971, there are bound to be a few things even big fans are not aware of. These are some of the harder-to-believe facts about Starbucks and at least some of them should shock even the brand's most diehard customers.

A Starbucks barista pourrs a drink

Starbucks used to be a very different sort of company. Image source: Getty Images.

1. At first it did not sell drinks

When the first Starbucks opened in 1971 near Seattle's Pike Place Market, it did not sell beverages. Instead the fledgling company sold roasted coffee beans so people could brew their own coffee at home. The chain did not add coffee drinks as an option in any of its locations until 1982, according to History Link, and it did not introduce an espresso bar until 1984.

2. The drink sizes are a mix of traditions

Starbucks' drink sizes at first corresponded to the ones used at Il Gornale, a coffee company later-CEO Howard Schultz created after he had left Starbucks because its owners did not want to sell drinks. At the shop (which sold only Starbucks coffee) Schultz originally used short for small, tall for medium, and grande for large. Aside from the unique spelling of grande, those are English terms.

When he bought Starbucks in 1987, Schultz wanted the company's cafes to better reflect the Italian espresso-drinking experience, so he kept short (8 ounces), tall (12 ounces), and grande (16 ounces) but added venti (24 ounces), and trenta (31 ounces). Venti means 20 and trenta 30 in Italian, so neither size name directly corresponds to the actual amount of liquid in the drinks.

3. Starbucks was bought for relatively nothing

Schultz paid $3.8 million for the small company when he purchased it from its original founders in 1987. That wasn't an unfair price for the size of the company at the time, but it's an astounding amount when you consider that the company has a market cap of almost $90 billion today.

4. A man named Bill Gates helped Schultz buy the company

Bill Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, played a major role in Schultz's landing the deal to buy Starbucks, CNBC reported. Schultz had a 90-day window to raise the needed funds to buy the chain, but after 60 days he was only halfway there, and another buyer emerged offering $4 million with no due diligence.

Schultz was introduced to Gates, who took the future Starbucks CEO to the office of the person who'd made the alternative bid. He then talked him out of it using pretty simple language.

"We walked in that office and all I remember him saying is: 'You should be ashamed of yourself that you're going to steal this kid's dream. It's not going to happen. You and I both know this is not going to happen,'" CNBC reported.

An ever-changing company

Starbucks of today looks nothing like the chain in its early days. Its stores, however, serve roughly the same purpose as the comforting "third place" in customers' daily lives beyond home and work that Schultz envisioned them filling when he bought the company. The menus are, of course, very different (or at least there's a lot more on them) but the core of what the former CEO saw has remained intact.

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Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel B. Kline owns shares of Microsoft. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.