Why Starbucks' New Wine-Bar Attitude Works

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 3:52 PM EDT

At Starbucks' (SBUX) new-prototype store here in Seattle, they're now serving beer and wine in the afternoons and evenings. Some in the latte crowd think liquor won't work in a Starbucks, but it's really a great strategy for developing a whole new after-work business that's previously been non-existent for the java giant.

The fact is, independent coffeehouses have been doubling as wine bars for ages. At the ferry dock near my home, the latte-shop-cum-wine-bar packs them in at night. These are highly compatible businesses, and adding booze will allow Starbucks to grow its nighttime revenue, which currently is usually... nothing.

There's been some negative reaction -- the test store has been dubbed "boozy 'bucks," and some female customers USA Today talked to said they might not feel comfortable in a Starbucks/bar. But Starbucks has a unique opportunity to use its reputation as a safe, clean hangout to evolve into a popular spot for both before work and after.

In our increasingly 24/7 work world, plenty of executives would probably love to park themselves in a Starbucks after work, take a meeting or use Wi-Fi to catch up on email, and have a glass of wine before they head home. By contrast, going to a neighborhood dive bar on the way home is likely less appealing -- and fewer of those have free Wi-Fi. Wine-bar Starbucks could be a place where businesspeople could relax but still feel they're in a somewhat businesslike environment.

Another possible plus: This Starbucks features local wines from Pacific Northwest growers. If they carry that through to other markets, it could be another chance to show Starbucks is hooked into local tastes. Obviously, not everywhere is a major wine region, but there are small wineries in many markets that Starbucks could feature.

Some soccer moms have whined that they feel safe at Starbucks and wouldn't if alcohol were being served. But that atmosphere is only going to change at night. You'll still be able to get your latte in the morning with your friends and the little one in the stroller. The clientele at 8 a.m. won't be any different.

Starbucks is also serving up a more upscale dinner menu served on real china (you can hear the company discussing it in the video above). Not sure that'll end up rolling out to a lot of stores, but it means Starbucks is upgrading its food offerings for this new, dinnertime meal. Maybe some of those new culinary ideas and vendor relationships will help upgrade lunch, too, which would be a plus.

Sure, this idea won't be a hit with the 12-stepping crowd. But for the rest, it gives Starbucks something most of its competitors won't be able to offer -- a place to rev up in the morning and wind down at night.

Photo via Flickr user alexbrn

  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.