Starbucks Goes Grande on Wine

The coffee giant is expanding wine and beer sales to 2,000 locations, hoping to earn $1 billion with its "Evenings" menu in four years
Starbucks Goes Grande on Wine
Each glass of wine at Starbucks comes in a custom Riedel with a side of pepitas for snacking. (Starbucks)
Sep 9, 2015

Starbucks is going Grande with its wine and beer program. The coffee giant is planning to aggressively expand "Evenings," its menu offering wine, beer, as well as food plates to pair them with, from select locations to more than 2,000 stores around the U.S. over the next four years. The world's largest coffee chain is poised to become a major source of wine sales, with Starbucks executives hoping to generate an incremental $1 billion from the Evenings program by the 2019 fiscal year. But the company's plan is facing opposition in some areas from local businesses and residents.

Why move into the business of selling alcoholic beverages now? At least 70 percent of Starbucks customers are wine drinkers, according to a 2014 report by marketing intelligence firm Mintel, a much higher percentage than the general U.S. population. And as a Starbucks spokesperson told Wine Spectator, it made sense to have offerings "more suitable for the evening hours, enhancing our role as a gathering place for the community throughout the day and into the evening."

Evenings was launched in 2010 at a single Seattle location. By August 2015, 75 of the company's stores served wine. That month, it began adding more—the start of its push to 2,000 of its more than 12,000 American locations.

Starbucks applications for licenses to sell alcohol are already pouring in across the country. On Sept. 2, community board committees in Manhattan's Financial District and Upper East Side gave their blessings to two locations each (New York's State Liquor Authority must still approve). Four new Denver-area locations began uncorking in late August. Local papers are reporting on suburban town boards OKing licenses in states like Texas, where Evenings spots did not previously exist.

But for some, wine and coffee don't mix. The flagship "new" Evenings location in Brooklyn's trendy Williamsburg neighborhood was slated to debut in 2014, but the community board initially rejected the license, citing a petition against it circulated by a local coffee shop. Eventually the board relented and Evenings debuted on Aug. 19 there.

The Starbucks on First Street in downtown Napa has obtained a license, but there's a petition on Change.org to block Evenings: "When this Starbucks begins serving alcohol, this will exclude many community members who will no longer feel comfortable." One signer wrote, "Our youth and folks in recovery and others need places in Napa to gather that are alcohol-free. Starbucks is a coffee shop, not a restaurant." The petition cites pushback in nearby Petaluma, where a Starbucks' liquor license remains pending. Another petition against Evenings in Tucson protests that Starbucks is one of the few places where younger teens can get jobs; alcohol sales would change that.

"We consider a number of factors before bringing a new experience to a store, and we want to bring the right experience at the right time," responded the Starbucks spokesperson when asked about these concerns.

For Evenings selections, customers order from the barista, as they would coffee. There are 10 tapas-style food items on the menu such as truffle mac & cheese, bacon-wrapped dates and a salumi plate. But, according to the spokesperson, the wine is the priority. "We worked side-by-side with our winery partners to identify the perfect small plate assortment to fit the uniqueness of our wine and beer menu."

There are 10 wine selections, which vary slightly from location to location, as do the beers, to emphasize local products and tastes. In New York, Brooklyn Brewery beer is sold; Washington locations pour the Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon H3.

The Williamsburg location currently carries Mionetto Prosecco, Santa Cristina Pinot Grigio, Villa Maria New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Ferrari-Carano Sonoma Chardonnay, Rosatello Moscato, Apothic California red blend, Carmel Road Monterey Pinot Noir, Alamos Argentina Malbec, Justin Paso Robles Justification red blend and The Show California Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of these are brands that come in a sizable volume, deliver reliable quality and represent categories currently selling well. More than 500 wines were tasted before the ultimate selection, according to the company.

By-the-glass prices range from $8 to $15, though wines are also available by the bottle. All wines are poured into the same custom-designed Riedel stemless glasses and served with a ramekin of pepitas designed to fit into the glass rim.

At the Williamsburg location, employees were positive about the reaction to the Evenings program two weeks in. "People respond really well to it. They think it's fun," said one barista. Another observed that as more people learned about Evenings, sales continued to pick up. Customers "who are here in the morning are the ones that are coming back to join us again for a second time."

Starbucks is making a big bet that they can stimulate customers to buy beer and wine. In suburban areas, people go to Starbucks to meet friends, talk business, convene their book clubs and stop by on dates. In places like New York City, Starbucks provides quiet; the company hopes wine will bring cheer to both atmospheres. At the Williamsburg location, a young nursing student had come to enjoy a glass of wine while working on her studies, after reading about Evenings on Yelp. "I wasn't sure what to expect, if it would be loud, but it's nice and quiet," she said. "It's a place where I can have a drink and do my homework. You can't do that at a bar."

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