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Starbucks' end run into the fast-casual burger market

Starbucks’ latest business diversion will have the company custom-grilling burgers, plating duck confit hash and mixing cocktails, albeit under the umbrella of its La Boulange bakery-café operation.

But don’t shrug off the diversification as just another cool experiment by the outfit that once tried to sell Starbucks-brand lamps and other “lifestyle products” via the Internet. The hard-nosed business objective is to steal your dinner business.

Starbucks stressed when it bought La Boulange in 2012 that its interest was in the baked goods, which have a cult following in the brand’s home market of San Francisco. Rolling them into Starbucks coffee shops would instantly add cachet and differentiation to the mega-chain’s grab-and-go breakfast menu. Suddenly, high-quality bread would be a distinguishing characteristic for Starbucks’ lunchtime sandwich line.

Now Starbucks is showing it has bigger plans for La Boulange. A new La Boulange will fire up its ovens next month in Los Angeles, the chain’s first expansion beyond San Francisco.  Local coverage stressed that the L.A. outpost will be much more of a French bistro—think Le Pain Quotidien with limited service—than a cooler riff on Au Bon Pain or Panera Bread. Consistent with the revamp, the French-farmhouse-themed restaurant will stay open until 10 p.m., far past the 7 p.m. bedtime of the San Francisco stores.

The daytime menu is reportedly heavy with café-style fare—omelets, salads, hot sandwiches and sweet baked items. In the evening, the focus will shift to cooked-and-dressed-to-order burgers, accompanied by French fries, sweet potato fries or onion strings. The signature version will be served on a croissant-like bun.

Every time a patron orders a club sandwich, a second one will be donated to a local food bank.

Beer and wine are available in addition to mixed drinks. Patrons can also indulge in a milkshake.

Lest you think La Boulange will be the vehicle for Starbucks Corp. to triple-caffeinate its dinner business, keep in mind that the company has indicated all along that the bakery-cafes will be test kitchens of sorts for Starbucks coffee shops. Combine that with the dinner-boosting touches that have already been incorporated into Starbuck-brand stores, and management’s explicit indications that food will figure larger in the core brand’s sales mix, and you have to wonder how far Big Green will take it. 

Its customers are already being introduced to La Boulange-branded products. How about a burger on a La Boulange croissant bun, served with a zinfandel or mocha latte?

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