Aroma wafting into town is from Starbucks coffee

September 26, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Barry Morrison, draped in a maroon hairdresser's smock, ambles back into Paul's salon carrying three large coffees and a pound of Sumatra beans, all bearing the green-and-white Starbucks label. So goes the invasion.

Before the Northwest incursion hit the Festival at Woodholme near Pikesville, Mr. Morrison would bear morning coffee from Sutton Place Gourmet next door or perhaps Donna's, across the parking lot. Then came the java juggernaut from Seattle, transforming yet another corner of the American coffee landscape.

"They're wonderful there," he says. "They can't do enough for you."

First York Road across from the Coffee Cafe in Towson, then Woodholme on Reisterstown Road. Next, Groffs Mill Drive in Owings Mills. Then, who knows? For Starbucks, the country's biggest specialty coffee company and the fourth-fastest-growing food chain, no one's turf is off-limits.

"They're not afraid of anybody," says Ron Paul, president of the Technomics restaurant consulting firm in Chicago. "They want to take the market, take the hill. It's the macho approach."

Macho, mocha, espresso macchiato, double-skinny grande lattes and a dime discount with every travel mug refill -- they're all part of the free-for-all for the gourmet coffee drinkers' dollar. Ever since Starbucks went public three years ago, the company has been storming one city after another, replicating itself like some chic virus.

Watch this space or that for tasteful furnishings in green, white and natural wood, shelves of coffee paraphernalia and artful photographs of people in Third World nations.

In 1971, Starbucks opened its first store in Seattle's Pike Place Market. In 1992, Starbucks had 165 stores in five states west of the Mississippi. By this year's end, the total will be 654 in 17 states, the District of Columbia and British Columbia.

By the end of July, total sales in stores, mail order and specialty marketing were nearly $374 million, up two-thirds from the same time a year ago.

"They are very powerful, very good," says Peter Nobel, who with his wife, Leslie Brooks Nobel, owns Coffee Cafe on York Road, which on July 8 became home to Starbucks' first company-owned store in the Baltimore area. From the window of his cafe, he cannot see the competition, tucked as it is behind the Firestone Tire Center on the southbound side of the road.

Checking it out

He has seen many of his regular customers go over to check out the coffee and promptly return to his place. He's not worried.

"I did budget studies every week since Starbucks opened," says Mr. Nobel, who moved to Baltimore from Canada. "I see an increase in my business."

Since he opened in May 1992, he says he has built a following of loyal customers who enjoy the social atmosphere and the custom small-batch coffee roasting he offers with a roaster behind the counter.

"If you do something right, people will come," says Mr. Nobel, who also runs coffee bars at the Lyric, Meyerhoff and Mechanic theaters.

Alan Hirsch, co-owner of Donna's, the coffee bar/restaurant group with nine locations in and around Baltimore, says he was a bit concerned when Starbucks opened in Woodholme on Aug. 5, a few yards away from Donna's coffee bar in the Bibelot bookstore. But so far, he says, there has been no significant impact on his business.

He has nothing but good things to say about Starbucks, but he says it's a different type of business. It's not quite a head-to-head competitor for Donna's.

"We offer something much more substantial," he says, in both the lunch and dinner menu and the bookstore ambience.

Hal Wander of Owings Mills, who stops at Donna's four, five mornings a week to have breakfast and read the newspaper, says, "I think this place has a lot more draw than Starbucks, there's more color. When I saw [Starbucks] go up I couldn't understand it, with this right here."

So what about this strategy of opening up right across from two established gourmet coffee places?

Not predatory

Rick Marshall, district manager of 11 Starbucks stores in Maryland, says he never considered it a predatory move. He says the two locations simply fit the profile Starbucks uses when it cracks a new market: high traffic and a local history of abundant Starbucks mail-order coffee business.

So far, he says, both stores are "doing great. They're exactly where we thought they would be."

He says the store under construction in Owings Mills will be open by the end of November. At least two more stores are planned for the Baltimore area in 1996, all part of a grand plan to put up 1,500 Starbucks stores in North America by the year 2000.

Perhaps this is good for all gourmet coffee purveyors, say Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Nobel. Perhaps the arrival of a national caffeine icon will whet the local appetite for good coffee, thus lifting many boats. That's the Starbucks theory, anyway.

Helping market?

"Their party line is they help grow the market, and I think there's some truth to that," says Mr. Hirsch.

He's heard the story about how two of the busiest Starbucks stores in Vancouver, B.C., were doing business in the same intersection, cater-cornered from each other. Then there's the scene in downtown Seattle, where you cannot take six steps without bumping into a Starbucks, or a Seattle's Best Coffee, or Caffe D'arte or Tully's.

"I don't get reassurance from that because Baltimore is not Seattle," Mr. Hirsch says. "The question is, 'Will it play in Baltimore?' "

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