Starbucks Rolls Out New Cafes Serving Beer and Wine

By Dirk Hanson 06/20/11

Salvaged wood paneling, art made from inner tubes, and perhaps a fruity local Pinot Gris. This is a Starbucks?

Too much coffee? Starbucks can help.
Photo via usaliveheadlines

“I’ll have a shot” is taking on a whole new meaning at selected Starbucks cafes. Last October, the company quietly started using three Starbucks in the company’s hometown of Seattle to test-market the idea of selling regional wines and beers to go with that half-caf latte. And now the company is starting to roll out the New Starbucks, starting with a café in Portland, where the usual coffee beverages and snacks will be augmented by an extended food menu—and a selection of beers and wines. Open till midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, even. As Laura Gunderson wrote in the Portland Oregonian: “A venti pinot anyone?” Beer and wine sales will begin at 2:00 PM in the new 2,300 square-foot store. Well, okay, noon on weekends. The new “wet” Starbucks in Portland is decidedly upscale and green: salvaged Douglas fir paneling, art made out of bicycle inner tubes, and leather recycled from local auto scrap yards. Zacks Equity Research says the coffee chain will soon be opening another beer and wine outlet in an existing café in nearby Issaquah. Can America’s most lucrative chain of coffee cantatas—all 16,858 stores—be far behind?

In retrospect, it all seems so inevitable. There’s a recession on, after all, and consumption of alcohol is rising, and the bane of Starbucks’ existence has been the friendly neighborhood indie shop that serves good coffee and local brews and wines. The dirty secret lurking behind the Starbuck’s success story is that the company makes 70% of its money before 2:OO in the afternoon. From then on, the search turns from coffee to a cold one. The chain coffee business is worth $15 billion, says USA Today, and Starbucks’ coffee-only competitors are watching all of this very keenly, as you might imagine. The company turns 40 next year, and wants in on neighborhood traffic in the evening. Starbucks Global Development Chief Arthur Rubinfeld told USA Today: “This is the natural evolution of the brand. This is all about elevating the brand’s position worldwide.”

Others aren’t so sure. Robert Thompson, a professor of culture at Syracuse University, said that the idea of jazzing up customers with coffee all day, then sedating them with booze at night “sounds like a perpetual motion machine.” We don’t know about that, but we’re fairly certain that Starbuck, the Quaker first mate in Melville’s Moby Dick and the company’s namesake, would never have stood for it.

So if you wander into a Starbucks in the near future, and it is dark and cozy, and has an outdoor deck, and an indoor fireplace, and a flock of baristas selling alcohol, you’ll know that this is all about branding. We feel so foolish—we were beginning to think it was all about drinking.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]