Despite the fact that TheStreet reported more than two years ago that Starbucks was looking to add beer, wine and other food options to its evening menus, a certain segment of the readership had a good ol' fashioned tantrum when Starbucks not only reiterated that plan, but announced its intention to continue it in thousands of other Starbucks locations.
"I don't want to be around drunks," some wailed. "Starbucks is going to turn into a bar," others argued. "Sure, now they're going to put it in the drive-ins" the less sensible among you posited. "Won't somebody please think of the children?"
Stop it. Just stop it right now. You sound like what would happen if the townspeople from Footloose met up with the townspeople from The Music Man at a book burning and decided to make sweet love down by the fire. More importantly, you just sound uninformed.
Starbucks didn't just start its evening beer, wine and food service yesterday. In fact, "Starbucks Evenings" have been going on in a number of U.S. cities for the better part of the last year. Pilot locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport have been mellowing out at 4 p.m., changing over the menus and offering wine and beer to patrons of drinking age.
In short, they've been treating paying adults like adults.
But why just take Starbucks' word for it when we could go down and check it out ourselves? As it turned out, Starbucks Evenings has three pilot locations in Portland, Ore. -- including one outside the ground floor exit of the city's giant Powell's City Of Books in the city's Pearl District that's been serving alcohol since 2011. It's in a neighborhood of former warehouses, factories, auto shops and tool-and-die works that's now home to brewpubs, wine bars and farm-to-table restaurants.
My wife and I stopped into the Starbucks in question on several occasions when we lived along the streetcar line that runs right outside the Starbucks entrance. The coffee chain has been trying to put these locations in areas with high foot traffic and lots of public transportation, so having one adjacent to a streetcar, a block away from main bus routes on Burnside Avenue and about five blocks away from a light-rail line (and another Starbucks Evenings location on SW 11th and Alder) seems ideal.
At first glance, it seems like an average Starbucks. Folks in window seats and on couches still sip coffee and stare into their laptops, tablets and other devices. All of the same coffee drinks and baked goods available during the day are still available at night. The key difference is a few standing-room-only small, single-page menu with about seven food items and a wine list.
The beer is typically local -- I've seen beers here from Deschutes Brewing right down the street and Hopworks just across town -- and the wine includes riesling, pinot gris, pinot noir and syrah from the nearby Columbia and Willamette river valleys. None of it is what I'd call cheap, with $5 and $6 beer pints running $1 to $2 more expensive than they'd be if you walked just about a block farther to the brewpub. The wine, meanwhile, doesn't give anyone the coffee-shop discount at $8 to $10 a glass.
It's all kept behind the counter -- with some of the wine stacked in decorative racks above the prep area -- it's all guarded by ID-checking baristas and it's all served in glassware that's ill-suited for traveling out of the store in a thermal sleeve and sippy-cup lid. From my vantage point, there seemed to be two kinds of people using it during the latter portions of the evening: Those working or reading in typical Starbucks hermit fashion and those just popping in for a coffee or glass of wine while waiting for the host or hostess at one of the nearby restaurants to call and tell them their table is ready.
Now there seems to be some concern about this concept spreading to suburban locations in malls, strip-mall parking lots and the like. There's concern about children who do their homework in these coffee shops, about adults who have to drive to and from these places and about the threat of a change in atmosphere at best and of bodily harm at worst.
From the locations Starbucks has chosen here in Portland and elsewhere, the chain isn't inviting that conflict. It is keeping them in densely populated, transit adjacent areas with the intent of keeping both its customers and itself out of trouble. It seems just as interested in keeping its calm coffeehouse vibe and still pumps these locations full of jazz, folk music, fresh-baked smells and whiffs of fresh-ground roast. Sticky, beer-soaked bar floors and a cacophony of clinking wine glasses and cackling vinophiles doesn't cut it in that environment.
Considering Starbucks Evenings haven't even set foot in New York, Boston, San Francisco, non-airport Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and myriad other transit-laden urban areas yet, those thousands of new wine-and-beer locations Starbucks is planning should fill up pretty quickly without taking a ride out to the suburbs. Not that they'd be in bad company, mind you: Applebee's (DIN), Chili's (EAT), The Olive Garden and Red Lobster (DRI), Chipotle (CMG) (yes, Chipotle), Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD), Smashburger and other family friendly suburban chains have no problem pouring beer or other drinks. In the New York tri-state area, generations of children were raised on diners that included full-service bars and drink menus on place mats that still exist to this day.
For Starbucks, it's just the next logical step. The chain was modeled on European cafes and, to an extent, the cafes in U.S. cities like San Francisco, New York and elsewhere that emulated them. Those cafes don't think twice about including beer, wine and even the occasional cordial or aperitif on their menus. The problem is that Starbucks went from 146 U.S. stores in 1992 and fewer than 2,000 in 1999 to more than 11,000 today. That put it in some hostile territory that was not only not interested in the chain's European aesthetic, but remains hostile to its espresso, pricing and drink naming convention to this day.
Never mind that, in many areas of the country, a standalone Starbucks location is still an aspirational commodity that can transform a struggling, faceless town into one that's up to speed with the rest of society. Forget, too, that the handpicked Starbucks Evenings locations take on an even more elite status just by virtue of their expanded offerings. No chain can transform Podunk into Paris just by opening a location.
Starbucks' biggest detractors aren't in cities with a Starbucks on every corner or even rural areas around Starbucks' hometown of Seattle with espresso carts in every gas station parking lot. They're in its more far-flung locations where complaining about Starbucks is not only a pastime, but a badge of honor. Now Starbucks is throwing yet another scary idea at them and triggering every natural defense they can muster. As a result, everyone who was griping about $4 coffee a week ago is doing their best Carrie Nation and Elliott Ness impersonations today: Swinging an ax at anything that looks like a barrel of ale, invoking the Volstead Act and saying it's for the good of the American family.
It isn't. Starbucks will be all too happy to give their exit on the interstate a pass in favor of locations crisscrossed with train stations, bus routes and decent cab or Uber service. It doesn't need the local John Lithgow telling Kevin Bacon he can't dance and doesn't need Robert Preston stirring up the people of River City against the local pool parlor.
It'll be more than happy to leave your little 'burg alone before you legislate its Starbucks Evenings out of town and go on a neo-Prohibitionist crusade against an idea that sounds awful, but is already part of the business plan for so many eateries in the strip mall. It'll keep its beer, wine and flatbreads in some other town, but you just might want to let it set up and give it a try first before showing it to the door.
Fear without a basis in knowledge is just ignorance, and judging by what we've seen from Starbucks Evenings so far, they're nothing to be afraid of.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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