Starbucks steps up its bid for bar business

Starbucks cup

After several years of cautiously testing the viability of selling beverages stiffer than a double shot of espresso, Starbucks is accelerating its effort to sell wine and craft beer in its U.S. stores.

The push goes into high gear this week.  The company on Wednesday will begin selling wine and beer, along with the sale of small plates such as bacon-wrapped dates and truffle mac ‘n cheese, at two dozen new locations across the U.S., Starbucks officials told USA TODAY.

The coffee giant has also submitted liquor license applications for several hundred more locations throughout the country in recent months and is optimistic that it will have many of those stores selling beer and wine by the end the year, said Rachel Antalek, vice president of concept innovations and Starbucks sommelier.

“We learned resoundingly that our customers want to come to Starbucks and have a glass of wine or a craft beer,” Antalek said in an interview at a company store in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which will sell adult beverages this week. “There aren’t that many places to go in the evening where you can go very relaxed, very casual. It’s not loud. You can actually have a small group and hear yourself talk.”

Once the new locations roll out this week, Starbucks will have more than 70 locations selling wine and beer. The coffee chain said this new wave of stores joining what it calls “Evenings” marks an inflection point in a push toward a concept company executives project will reap $1 billion in additional annual sales by 2019.

The ramp up starts in Denver, Miami, Orlando and Northern California markets, as well as a recently-opened, 2,900 square foot location here in Brooklyn, a store that Starbucks officials think can be an incubator for ideas as the company goes all-in on its bet that Americans want the option of a glass of wine or bottle of beer at the place best known for supplying a caffeine fix.

The company first announced in 2010 that it would experiment with wine, craft beer and small plates at a few stores as it sought to boost traffic after 4 p.m., when sales tended to slow down. Stores in Washington state, Oregon, Los Angeles, Chicago, Florida, and Atlanta markets were the first to test beer and wine.

Starbucks fans = Wine fans?

Starbucks waded carefully into Evenings as some industry analysts questioned whether Americans were interested in buying adult beverages at the same place they get their morning cappuccino. Company officials said they also considered the concerns of their skeptical devotees who worried their beloved coffee shops would transform into bars.

After nearly five years of experimenting with the concept, the company said it is confident that it is on to something. In the months ahead, patrons of the coffee chain will see Evenings pop up nearly everywhere as Starbucks introduces the concept in more than 2,000 of its more than 12,000 U.S. stores.

When Starbucks launched Evenings, Antalek said company officials believed that they would be able to draw strong interest. Internal data showed about 70% of Starbucks patrons also drink wine. About 31% of Americans who drink alcohol say they prefer wine, according to a 2014 Gallup survey.

As the pilot stores rolled out, Starbucks officials were surprised at times by the level of interest and how patrons were using the program.

Antalek said from the start she has thought the program could be a winner with women, who she suggested would see Starbucks as a safer and more inviting option to meet friends during evening hours than a bar. The hunch proved largely true, with women accounting for 60% of Evenings patrons, according to the company. Pilot stores found serving wine helped the stores attract book clubs, knitting circles and even the occasional Bible study that would have otherwise taken place at someone’s house, the company said. Managers at the pilots have also noted that the wine and beer menu has drawn a surprising number of online daters meeting for the first time.

The push by quick service restaurants into alcohol sales isn’t new. Burger King launched the BK Whopper Bar concept more than five years ago, opening several locations where patrons could buy a bottle of beer to wash down their burger. Sonic has tested beer and wine sales to patrons eating at the fast food chains patio at some locations. And Taco Bell recently announced plans to test spiked freezes, beer and wine at locations in Chicago and San Francisco.

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