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More than Coffee, a Way of Life; that's how the folks who run Starbucks want it to be, anyway.

So, Grab That Second Double Latte and Read How They're Planning to Make It Happen. . . Across the Entire Planet.

September 22, 1996|KIM MURPHY | Kim Murphy is the Times' Northwest bureau chief. Her last article for the magazine was on Seattle's growing pains

It is hard to talk about coffee and passion and integrity and, oh yes, art, all in the same breath and not get the sense that you've been swept into some caffeine dream, a double-tall, foamy latte land where you can rhapsodize about coffee all you want and there's no small temptation to look up from your cup and exclaim, "Beans!"

But on a recent Monday afternoon, Jon Greenawalt, southwest regional marketing director for Starbucks Coffee Co., is wondering how this coffee-as-art stuff is going to play in West Los Angeles. The occasion--a meeting of Starbucks senior marketing managers at headquarters in downtown Seattle to lay out the sales emphasis for holiday 1996 and early 1997. Its mission--to decide how to get you to buy even more Starbucks coffee next year, even if you're already holding out your designer tumbler for the java sacrament, as at least one-tenth of all Starbucks patrons do, twice a day.

"My overall message is Starbucks coffee is a passion and an art, and the umbrella message is coffee is an art form and coffee is an inspiration," announces retail marketing director Julie Kouhia. "We're looking at a focus on the art of whole bean coffee, the romance of espresso, artisans and inspiration."

Kouhia waits for reaction from the four Starbucks executives--all of them women--gathered around the table, and two more who are connected by speakerphone from Starbucks' far-flung empire. The room is quiet for several minutes while the concept seeps around the meeting table. Then marketing vice president Jennifer Tisdel steps in to paint the scene for those on the other end of the phone. "She's looking toward the sky and gesturing with her hand," she says, grinning at Kouhia. "She looks a little bit like Moses."

Tentatively, almost apologetically, Greenawalt's voice comes out of the speakerphone. Have they ever been to California, he wonders? Do they know what it's like out there at the tough tables in Orange County, across the counter from the grim-faced commuters of the 405?

"As you get farther into San Francisco, that kind of message might have some kind of appeal," Greenawalt begins. "But I drive up and down Santa Monica Boulevard, and I see folks hanging out, relish-

ing the cafe kind of experience. I just don't see how those folks would relate to the kind of thing we've been talking about for the last 20 minutes." He waits, and when no one steps in to yank his Starbucks Partner credential, he gets braver. "I have a huge fear of isolating people with a message that's so highbrow. I worry about some of these music and art things, whether they're going to have any appeal, especially in Southern California, where we're all a bunch of shallow, hopeless individuals."

There are chuckles around the room, but Tisdel, the Harvard MBA who is one of the aggressive new marketing strategists behind Starbucks' stealthy incursion into coffee experiences across America, picks up the refrain. She twirls her pen over one of the many oversize organizers that cover the table. "Opera," she says finally, opening a small window for negotiation. "Is that a foregone conclusion?"

lots of conversations like this one are playing out in starbucks' airy, loft-like headquarters in a converted warehouse near the Seattle waterfront: What's the Starbucks message? Just what are you supposed to think about its clean, high-tech coffee bars that have made you willing--no, proud--to pay $1.15 for a cup of coffee you could make at home for 25 cents?

Last year, Starbucks, the small, hip coffee bean microroaster that has exploded into more than 950 retail outlets--from downtown office buildings to suburban strip malls--opened stores at the rate of one every day. It expects to nearly double the number of its retail outlets during the next four years. In the blitz across Canada, five stores were launched in Toronto in a single day last January. In Tokyo, where Starbucks last month extended its first tentacle outside North America, 200 patrons at a time stood in lines to get in, and the company immediately announced plans to open in Singapore and Hawaii before the end of the year. Nor has Starbucks stopped at selling coffee, be it dripped, pressed, espressoed, latted, cappuccinoed or mochaed. Last year, the Redhook Ale Brewery began offering Double Black Stout beer, a dark, heavy brew spiked with Starbucks coffee; in June, Frappuccino, the milky, iced blender concoction that swept coffee bars last summer, debuted in a bottle on supermarket shelves and quickly oversold, leaving retailers anxiously phoning for more; Dreyer's weighed in with five flavors of Starbucks ice cream, surpassing its previous non-Starbucks coffee entry to become the No. 1-selling premium coffee ice cream in the United States.

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