Seattle’s Best Is Overhauling Its Image After Losing Tons Of Stores When Borders Died

April 9, 2012

Seattle’s Best Is Overhauling Its Image After Losing Tons Of Stores When Borders Died

Emily Bryson, Chicago Tribune | Mar. 19, 2012, 10:47 AM

March 19–Seattle’s Best Coffee, which lost about 450 of its cafes when Borders bookstores closed, is overhauling its image in pursuit of a different customer.

The Seattle-based, Starbucks-owned chain expects to open a prototype store Monday in west suburban Northlake that aims to serve young working-class families, particularly Hispanics, who spend their mornings in the car.

Its first store in the new style, a drive-through on North Avenue adjacent to aWal-Mart, features glass outer walls and a gray interior with a large menu board, nearly split between food and drinks. It’s a stark contrast to the well-known Borders design of secluded cafes with wood tables and chairs, and a pictureless menu focused on beverages. (Seattle’s Best still has a stand-alone location in this style in downtown Chicago.)

Pop music filled the store during a friends-and-family tasting event to prepare for Monday’s opening. Steven Kupisch, whose fiancee works at the cafe, said while his favorite beverage was an iced marble mocha, an espresso beverage with white and dark chocolate sauce, he liked the cold-brewed iced coffee too.

“I’ve tried iced coffee everywhere and don’t like it,” he said. “But this I’ll have again.”

After the Borders bankruptcy, Senior Vice President Jim McDermet said the chain “saw a real opportunity to pause, take a look at the broader market,” and see “what was the market opportunity not being met.”

The chain was looking for an idea that could be rolled out to thousands of stores nationwide and catapult the brand past $1 billion in annual sales. Starbucks does not disclose Seattle’s Best revenues, but McDermet said he believes it can be a “multibillion-dollar brand.”

In recent years, the company has overhauled its grocery packaged coffee and established national contracts that lend coffee credibility to fast-food chains making a go at breakfast, like Subway and Burger King, and even convenience chains like Chevron’s ExtraMile.

Seattle’s Best had previously marketed itself as a more approachable alternative for people put off by Starbucks. After eight months of research, the 42-year-old brand has tightened its focus, courting workers and young, on-the-go families who spend mornings in the car, buying coffee beverages at fast-food chains or gas stations. Chris Bruzzo, chief marketing officer for Seattle’s Best, said that about half of the U.S. population over age 18 fits into this category.

But Seattle’s Best is particularly keen on building its Hispanic customer base. Bruzzo said Hispanics are the fastest-growing population within the company’s new consumer target, and Northlake was chosen with Hispanics in mind. The store has three employees who speak Spanish fluently, and two who speak Polish.

To overhaul its menu, the company spent time with Chicago-area Hispanics, Bruzzo said. The result is a number of sweet beverage options including a caramel candy latte, a creme brulee latte, and caramel, hazelnut or vanilla flavored creams.

He said the group also asked for a variety of food options for breakfast, lunch and snacks, with healthy and indulgent options. The result is a line of egg sandwiches on English muffins or biscuits; cookies; sausage-and-egg biscuit bites; pretzel sandwich rolls; mini fruit pies and multigrain fruit bars.

The new menu is being offered only at the Northlake store, but the company said it could be rolled out to existing locations quickly.

Seattle’s Best expects its status as a known, premium brand to vault it past fast-food competitors with penny-pinching coffee lovers. But Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic, believes the retooled Seattle’s Best is more likely to cannibalize sales from Starbucks.

Still, “from a strategic standpoint, I think they’d rather draw away from their own customer base than allow a competitor to draw away from it,” he said. “If they can siphon some Starbucks customers and others from places like Dunkin’, that makes them very competitive.”

Tristano said he believes Dunkin’ customers buy sandwiches as an add-on while stopping in for coffee, rather than a belief that the products are high quality. At Seattle’s Best, however, he said customers will expect a more upscale experience and food quality to match.

Tristano said he expects Seattle’s Best to be competitive with Dunkin’ and McDonald’son price for a la carte orders, but he believes they’ll fall short for those seeking deals on bundled meals.

But at least one customer was considering a change Friday.

Emaad Elhindi, a Dunkin’ regular who strolled into Seattle’s Best on his way to Wal-Mart, described the chain’s coffee as “the best.”

Twitter @emilyyork

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