Will Beer Succeed as the New Buzz at Starbucks?

Lately Starbucks (SBUX) has been trying to change things up. They finally got free Wi-Fi with free digital content, they are trying to slow down the process of making drinks (which seems to me about the equivalent of clipping a bird’s wings), and now they’re talking about adding booze to the menu. Irish coffee, anyone?

At two test locations in Seattle, Starbucks has begun to serve regional beers and wines in an attempt to get more business after 2 p.m. Reports show that Starbucks does 70% of its business before 2 p.m., yet most stores are open until 9 p.m. or later. Starbucks hopes to boost revenue in their off-hours by serving alcohol and expanding their food menus to include locally produced cheeses, which they expect to draw in a crowd of people who want a place where they can sit, drink, and socialize without having to go to a full-on restaurant or bar.

And so as not to give patrons the impression that they are having a beer in a Starbucks coffee shop, these new cafés would be remodeled with larger tables meant to encourage group gatherings, and barista bars so you can sit right next to all the coffee-grinding action. One of the test locations has been redesigned to feature “reclaimed and local materials as well as work from local artists,” according to the Starbucks website.

As someone who was in college not long ago, and who has spent her entire life living within a few miles of one university or another, I’ve never witnessed a single underperforming coffee shop. Just a few weeks ago I was at a Starbucks at 7 p.m. on a Sunday and couldn’t find anywhere to sit; every single table, couch, and giant purple armchair was taken. I ended up drinking my Pumpkin Spice Latte outside, leaning against Starbucks’ brick wall in the company of four other people while I waited to meet a friend.

When I was in college, my friends and I used to stay at Starbucks until closing time, talking or studying or reading a beat-up paperback, nursing a Venti something until it was cold, living on scones and coffee cake and the occasional Subway sandwich we were able to smuggle in our book bags and eat in a corner hidden by the enormous crowd. In my world, Starbucks has always been a late-night hangout, somewhere one can crack a book without the deafening quiet and the depressing gloom of a library at 11 p.m. during exams week, where one can have a nice conversation with a friend without being shooed out by a waiter who wants the table for someone else, and somewhere a grad student tired of childish antics can avoid the rowdy drinking crowd on a Saturday night. But the powers that be say otherwise. Apparently the crowds I encountered—the bodies in every seat—were just my imagination.

So if these test locations in Seattle prove popular, Starbucks may be changing things up on a grander scale, by “bringing this concept to select stores in neighborhoods where it is relevant,” according to a recent Starbucks press release. The question is, what qualifies a location as “relevant”? Do they plan on bringing this new model to the most underperforming cafés, or will they bring it to areas that already have an established nightlife to work with, areas where another place to get a beer would be superfluous?

All of this remains to be seen. However, I know I don’t want my Starbucks being changed. I already have places I can go to get a drink, but where will I go if my local Starbucks is overrun by yuppies drinking cabernets or microbrews and talking too loudly about an essay they read in the New Yorker? It seems to me that Starbucks is pretty close to perfect just the way it is (although they could stand to lower prices a bit on their specialty drinks), and if it changes, it only risks alienating the after-2p.m. crowd it already has. Right now there’s nothing cool about Starbucks at night—most of its patrons are there for the long-haul, drinking coffee to stay awake, hair disheveled from a long day, dressed in jeans or sweats or even pajama pants. And that’s the way we like it. Starbucks, so hip in the morning, needs those off-hours to appeal to those un-cool people who really can’t afford the $5 coffee but get it anyway in order to curl up on an overstuffed loveseat and tackle Chaucer, maybe even take a nap.

I know some people who would welcome this change—maybe drink a little while they study, add a little something to that coffee to help them get through a late class, sit and drink for a few hours while discussing New Age platitudes. And then there will be people like me who don’t want things to change, who want Starbucks to remain a place where people speak in hushed tones, where their teeth are stained rather than their lips, and where, if they want real food, they’ll have to sneak something in from the Thai place down the street.

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