Starbuck's recent annoucement that it would start serving beer and wine at stores in Atlanta and Southern California has gotten lots of press in the last week. Much of it, like much Starbucks, talk is rather tongue and cheek. "Would You Like a Lager with Your Latte?" "Starbucks Turns to Happy Hour." "Coffee, Pastries, and Wine."
On one hand, the press reports suggest a continued and enduring interest in all things Starbucks.
And the stories suggests a rather simple and predictable business story. Starbucks wants to maximize the yield on its real estate. How can it get people into its stores in the slower evening hours, serve drinks. Pretty simple. And it is pretty simply an attempt to corner the market on legal stimulants -- uppers in the morning and downers after dinner. Starbucks picks us up and brings us down.
But is Starbucks' move cultural significant. I was talking about this on the Patt Morrison show with business blogger Matthew DeBord. To be sure, Starbucks helped transform how Americans consumed coffee -- what they drank, where they drank it, and what they were willing to pay for it. The company also helped to transform urban spaces -- by creating for people to be alone in public (though it fell far short of its own mytical goal of creating Third Places.)
Yet when it comes to alcohol will Starbucks change how we drink? I don't think so and I don't think Starbucks will make much of an impact on this front. First, even when it comes to coffee, Starbucks is largely a take-out joint. That's its bread and butter business. And America isn't about to adopt the model of New Orleans and allow for riders. More important, I don't think Americans are going to take to the coffee bar, as a bar bar. That alone in public feeling at Starbucks works as a coffee place, but it won't work as a drink place -- we don't really want to drink alone in relatively brightly lite spaces with floor to ceiling windows. Do we really want to drink (alone in public) and serve the web?
And bars moreover seem to be the one place in America that has resisted the branded impluse -- at least in terms of setting, not the drinks -- e.g. Bud -- that they serve. Sure there some people, in some suburbs and downtown spots who go to TGIF and Chili's, but this isn't the idea of a bar for most people, is it? Bars are the kinds of places that we seem to insist have to have a certain feel of local-ness, something that a Starbucks can't deliver.
So my guess is that Starbucks will sell wine and beer with modest success to niche market of people looking for a caffenie come down in a perdictable setting when they are away from home or by themselves. Sort of like an movebale airport lounge.