Starbucks to add wine, beer, small plates menu at Woodfield cafe as Starbucks Evenings plan expands beyond Pacific Northwest

 By Emily Bryson York, Chicago Tribune

Starbucks’ customers in Schaumburg will have a new coffee alternative beginning Friday that some might find surprising: wine.

The Streets of Woodfield cafe will be the first Starbucks location outside the Pacific Northwest to host a new concept the chain has dubbed Starbucks Evenings. Beginning at 4 p.m., customers may order wine priced at $7 to $15 a glass and up to $50 per bottle,and choose food from a small plates menu, including warm rosemary cashews, bacon-wrapped dates, flatbreads or chocolate fondue. Beer will also be available.

“This concept is trying to deliver the same atmosphere and the same service that everybody’s grown to love and expect from Starbucks,” said Rachel Antalek, director of new concept development at Starbucks Coffee Co. “We’re constantly innovating and trying new things, and this is something our customers have asked us for that in a lot of ways hearkens back to European coffeehouse heritage.”

The concept is just the latest in a string of new ventures for Starbucks, which is the third-largest restaurant chain in the U.S., with nearly $9.8 billion in sales at its nearly 11,000 restaurants as estimated by Technomic. But some experts wonder if the company is straying from its core coffee-and-espresso mission, a problem that plagued the chain four years ago.

Antalek said customers will order at the counter as usual, but the cafes will offer limited table service to ask patrons if they’d like anything else after they’ve gotten comfortable. The cafe eventually will feature live music and poetry readings. The idea is to create the opportunity for a “no-stress book club” or for busy moms to unwind after dropping the kids at soccer practice.

“As soon as customers see it, they see all kinds of ways to use it,” Antalek said.

The seven Starbucks cafes offering wine and beer in the Pacific Northwest have seen double-digit same-store sales increases after 4 p.m., the company said.

Antalek said the chain won’t do much advertising for the evening offerings, aside from social media outreach. Stores will post signs to make customers aware of the service, and baristas will encourage morning customers to visit again in the evening.

Starbucks is planning to offer wine and an evening menu at as many as six more Chicago-area locations by year end, including openings in Burr Ridge and in the city at Sheffield and Diversey avenues by early August. Two more Chicago locations are in the permitting process.

The Schaumburg cafe is the first to introduce the small plates menu, but the new food items will be offered at the seven locations already selling wine and beer. Items include warm cashews for $3.45 and a shareable chocolate fondue for $6.95.

Starbucks began experimenting with alcohol on the menu at a Seattle location in October 2010.

“Wine has a tendency to appeal more to women … and heavy users of specialty coffee,” Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group, said, noting that the concept bodes better for Starbucks than such chains as Burger King and White Castle, which have been experimenting with wine and beer.

Riggs said she thinks the Starbucks Evenings plan could be successful in “large markets and, maybe, airports.”

Later this year, Starbucks will extend the wine and evening menus to Atlanta and Southern California, where the chain is eyeing locations in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Some experts believe Starbucks might be moving too far afield from its core.

“I think it’s going to create a lot of confusion for their customers,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. “They may be headed from being a great place to go for coffee and baked goods in the morning or afternoon to trying to do way too much.”

Starbucks Evenings is the latest expansion into new business for the quick-service chain, which removed the word “coffee” from its corporate logo early last year to underscore its ambitions beyond coffee. Within the last six months, Starbucks has opened test stores for Tazo Tea, Seattle’s Best Coffee and Evolution Fresh juice. In May, Starbucks announced the acquisition of La Boulange bakery, promising to bring the products to its stores and expand the bakery chain.

Starbucks spokeswoman Alisa Martinez said the coffee giant has an emerging-brands team that handles the auxiliary retail concepts, adding that each brand is relevant to the company’s core customer.

Starbucks has returned to industry darling status after navigating a turnaround nearly three years ago. Founder Howard Schultz returned to the CEO position in 2008, as the chain’s store traffic and stock price began to slip. At the time Schultz said the company had lost its focus and a bit of its “soul” after years of rapid growth.

The company closed underperforming stores and trimmed ancillary businesses, like in-store music, homing in on coffee and espresso drinks and working to boost the quality of its food. Starbucks has posted same-store sales gains since the fourth quarter of 2009.

Other observers said that mixing alcohol and a quick-service atmosphere could be a recipe for conflict, with young employees overseeing a situation that could become charged if patrons are overserved.

But Antalek said alcohol in restaurants hasn’t been a problem so far, adding that the company has a comprehensive alcohol training program in place.

“We don’t find we have customers coming in to overindulge,” she said. “They’re not using the space that way.”

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