U.S. company stirs a hot coffee scene Starbucks helps Japanese deal with the daily grind

August 04, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO -- There's a new buzz in town. Starbucks Coffee took a high-risk plunge last week into its first foreign market: Japan, land of $5 cups of coffee, chronically sleep-starved consumers and intense competition to supply their daily caffeine fix.

Seattle-based Starbucks has opened its store in the posh Ginza district at a time when the coffee retailing market here is more competitive than ever.

Coffee has supplanted green tea as Japan's most popular beverage. According to the All Japan Coffee Association, coffee consumption has risen about sixfold since 1980, while green tea consumption fell 8 percent.

Japan is now the world's third-largest importer of coffee, after the United States and Germany.

The coffee shop has a particular role in Japan, where homes are too cramped and often too far from downtown to do much entertaining, and few workers have private offices.

It is a place to sneak away to during the work day, to talk business (or baseball) with clients and colleagues, to meet friends and romance lovers, or just to take a respite from Tokyo's crowds and breakneck pace.

At the high end of the market, a few glamorous shops offer cappuccino for nearly $7 a cup. The chairs face the street, like an elegant Parisian cafe where the point is to people-watch and be seen.

One notch down is the Renoir chain, which charges more than $4.50 a cup -- no refills -- but lets customers hold business meetings and read or nap undisturbed in its plush armchairs for up to two hours for the price of a cup.

"If you go in there at 11 a.m., the place is full of middle-aged men playing hooky from work, and they're out cold all over the place," said travel agent Frank Kagiyama, who visits coffee bars to satisfy his seven- or eight-cup-a-day habit.

Toward the low end of the market are McDonald's and other fast-food stores, where $2 buys a cup of iced coffee to provide a jolt for the sweaty workers who pour out of jammed commuter trains each hot summer morning.

Starbucks, which already has a following among well-traveled Japanese consumers, is aiming at the center of the market by pricing regular coffee at $2.35 per cup and cappuccino at $2.65.

On advice from Starbucks' Japanese joint-venture partner, Sazaby Inc., the baked goods on offer are not as sweet as those in the United States, and there is no decaffeinated coffee on the menu; it has not yet caught on in Japan.

But the dark-roasted coffee, the decor, the hip-looking Japanese employees, the T-shirts and even the music are identical to those in U.S. stores.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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