Rivals' pleasantries can go only so farThe best moment of...

CONSUMER MARKETPLACE

November 21, 1992|By Michael Dresser

Rivals' pleasantries can go only so far

The best moment of Alex. Brown & Sons' Consumer Growth Stock Seminar early this week came when Office Depot Chairman David L. Fuente, who was just about to give a presentation to several hundred high-powered investors, fell into conversation with Thomas Stemberg, his counterpart at archrival Staples.

As the two corporate bigwigs exchanged lengthy pleasantries, Alex. Brown analyst Christopher Vroom -- charged with keeping the tightly scheduled program running on time -- fidgeted. Finally, Mr. Stemberg broke off, but Mr. Fuente launched into another conversation.

With several billion dollars of investment capital growing impatient, Mr. Vroom took action. Don't worry, he assured Mr. Fuente, Tom Stemberg will be glad to give your presentation.

Mr. Fuente was on the podium in a hurry.

Baltimore in mind at several companies

The Alex. Brown seminar attracts some of the most exciting restaurant and retail companies in the United States. Many of them are unknowns in Baltimore -- but that could change within the next couple of years.

Among the companies with Baltimore on their minds:

* Filene's Basement, the discount apparel chain whose flagship Boston store is a New England legend, has Maryland on a short list of seven states being considered for its next wave of expansion in 1993.

"We have been looking at the Baltimore-Washington area," said Jim Anathan, the company's chief executive. "We would love to be in both areas."

However, he said that real estate availability is tight in both markets and that Filene's Basement has not yet found enough high-quality locations to justify an invasion of the region.

Right now, Mr. Anathan said, Baltimore looks more like a 1994 or 1995 expansion target. Filene's Basement specializes in national-brand men's and women's apparel at 20 percent to 60 percent off department store prices.

* Outback Steakhouse, a fast-growing chain of restaurants with an Australian theme, is also having troubles finding a foothold in Maryland. But Chief Financial Officer Robert S. Merritt said the state is high on the company's list of markets to enter.

Mr. Merritt said Outback is looking for sites but has had some trouble with the patchwork of liquor license requirements in the state's various jurisdictions. Still, he said, "I'd be very surprised if we weren't here next year."

Tampa, Fla.-based Outback has 79 restaurants and plans to open up to 60 more over the next two years.

* Starbuck's, a chain of coffee shops whose fanaticism about freshness is testament to its roots in coffee-crazy Seattle, will bring a jolt of fine java to Washington next year. Baltimore is unlikely to be too far behind.

Orin Smith, Starbuck's chief financial officer, said the Washington expansion will dominate the chain's East Coast efforts next year. But the company's 1994 expansion could include Baltimore.

Whenever that happens, street-level downtown sites will have a definite edge over suburban shopping malls. "We don't like malls. We never have," said Chief Executive Howard Schultz, a self-described purist who declares that "all of the coffee we've been drinking from supermarkets all our lives has been stale."

Baltimore (and Annapolis) coffee lovers should pray that some aggressive developers find good locations for Starbuck's and persuade its management to speed up expansion plans. This is a company that roasts its own beans. And if the coffee doesn't sell within seven days, it's given to charities.

Starbuck's, which operates about 160 coffee restaurants on the West Coast, Denver and Chicago, recently signed a deal with Seattle-based Nordstrom, an equally fanatical company. Starbuck's coffee will be distributed in Nordstrom stores and served in its restaurants and coffee bars. Of course, Nordstrom will have to discard all coffee on the eighth day, too.

One last note: Maryland economic development officials, take heed. Staples plans to locate a mid-Atlantic distribution center between New York and Washington, its chairman said. No site has been chosen.

Topps is 'rookie star'in comic books

The Topps Co. Inc., the nation's largest marketer of trading cards, is the new "rookie star" in the comic book industry.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company recently made its first venture into illustrated literature, publishing part one of its four-part "Bram Stoker's Dracula" series, It's based on the new film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Coming next year: "Jurassic Park" comics, based on the Steven Spielberg film of the Michael Crichton novel. Will it be a hit? "We've seen the dinosaurs. It's staggering," Topps Chairman Albert T. Shorin told investors at the Alex. Brown conference.

Silver Diner chief was there to learn

Among those attending the Alex. Brown seminar was Robert Giaimo, chief executive of The Silver Diner, which is packing 'em in at its new Towson location.

Mr. Giaimo, who plans to take his company public in few years, said he was there to learn a few things. Not a bad idea: It wouldn't be surprising if Silver Diner was featured at a future Alex. Brown seminar.

But before Mr. Giaimo gets to see his company listed on the stock pages, he has other work to do. Encouraged by the response in Towson, the energetic entrepreneur is scouting other Baltimore-area locations.

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