Comedian Dennis Miller was kidding when he said they were about to open a Starbucks inside another Starbucks, but in Towson, it looks like the joke won't be far from the truth.
For the past few years, Towson residents and shoppers have had the choice of getting their super-strong Seattle brew in the Barnes & Noble in the old Hutzler's building downtown or in Towson Town Center just across Joppa Road.
A few months ago, another Starbucks opened in the Dulaney Plaza shopping center, across the street from the mall. Now the company has a contract to build another coffeehouse (this one with a drive-through window) on the site of an abandoned Crown gas station at York Road and Burke Avenue, all of four blocks away. And local developers say Starbucks is considering other sites around the Towson traffic circle for yet another store.
"There are going to be a lot of jittery people in the morning," said Don Wright, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.
Farther to the south, there's a Starbucks in the York Plaza shopping center just north of the city line, and another one is under construction in an old bank building just north of Eddie's supermarket on Charles Street.
In the minds of company officials, it's not so much that Towson would have an unusual concentration of frappuccino-wielding baristas if this all comes to pass. It's that the rest of Baltimore is dangerously underserved.
"We only have like 22 stores in the Baltimore area, and they're all very spread out," said Starbucks spokeswoman Shannon Jones. "Within the District of Columbia, we're up to about 30 stores, but in the D.C. metro area, we have about 140. But that is something we're definitely looking to change. Baltimore is definitely under growth for us."
Starbucks or not
Although the cafe in the back of a Barnes & Noble may emit an aroma strong enough to caffeinate the air, it does not, technically, count as a Starbucks. It is merely a licensed purveyor of Starbucks coffee and not a free-standing store.
All those kiosks in the airport besieged by zombie-eyed travelers looking for a fix don't count either. Neither do the ones inside Safeway grocery stores.
"The volume at some of our stores has gotten so much that we need to open up more stores to kind of take off some of the volume," Jones said.
The Dulaney Plaza Starbucks was buzzing midafternoon this week with a constant stream of patrons. Though they were Starbucks devotees, patrons were nonplused at the idea of another store or two in the neighborhood.
"I love this Starbucks. I don't think they need another one," said Amy Medalie, who stopped for coffee on her way to a graduate education course at Goucher College. "It would be ridiculous. They'd just be competing with themselves."
On the contrary, said Keith Barnard, president and chief economist of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group. Performance of Starbucks outlets, he said, remains stronger than the coffee. Four or five stores in a three-block radius is a little unusual, he said, but it makes good business sense.
"This is a little different from the way we would look at stores like, say, the Gap, which is a vastly over-stored company," Barnard said. "They have something like 5,000 stores, but how many pairs of jeans can you buy? But you need a cup of coffee continuously, and you need to eat something with it."
Starbucks profit margins are high, he said, so it doesn't take too much business to keep one afloat.
"All I can tell you is they charge you, what, $3 for a cup of coffee? If they don't make money off of it, then I don't know what you can make money on," he said.
Starbucks is so confident about the York and Burke site that it is paying more than $700,000 for the land -- four-tenths of an acre.
Good for Towson
For residents, developers and government officials, who recently have made a major push at revitalization in Towson, Starbucks is like a gift from the gods.
The abandoned Crown station has been a problem for years, serving like a warning sign to anyone driving to downtown Towson from the south or to Towson University students thinking of walking across Burke Avenue.
"Nothing says `blight' like an abandoned gas station," said Andrea J. Van Arsdale, director of community revitalization for the county's Department of Economic Development.
When Starbucks developers presented their concept plans for the new store at a meeting of a Towson revitalization committee this week, members quibbled about the details but were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea of making Starbucks the new southern gatepost of the community.
Not only could it help bring Towson students across Burke Avenue, but it could also have a ripple effect in improving the properties to the north, members said.
"Starbucks is kind of at the top of the list, as far as I'm concerned for this small of a piece of property," Wright said. "Now we just need to move on down the road."
The spillover phenomenon is evident in the Dulaney Plaza shopping center, where the new Starbucks was followed by upscale women's clothiers Chico and Ann Taylor Loft.
With one abandoned gas station out of the way, Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat, said he has been having meetings with representatives of Shell Oil Co., which owns another abandoned gas station just north of the traffic circle. Environmental concerns there have been taken care of, and the site could be ready for another development soon, Gardina said.
"I haven't been told officially yet, but it appears to be another Starbucks, which I don't understand, but it appears to be a possibility," Gardina said. "I can't drink that coffee -- it's too strong -- but they sell a lot of it."