Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A good Starbucks rant, completely wasted

I was set to unload on Starbucks for embracing tea as its next big thing when a Jimmy Stewart moment took hold. My inner O’Reilly wanted to fume, “A coffee company doing tea? C’mon, folks, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! Why not just roll a keg of Budweiser behind the counter?” But the more I considered how McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts kicked Starbucks in the beans by adding comparable brews, the more I wanted to say with a charming stutter, “Now wait a gosh-darned minute here. I love tea! Everyone loves tea! And now you won’t be able to get the really good stuff anywhere but Starbucks. It’s a brilliant idea, I tell ya!”

Which, of course, leads to two surprising conclusions: Jimmy Steward could’ve stomped Bill O’Reilly’s any time, even if Sean Hannity joined in. And the next major point of differentiation for a chain synonymous with coffee may indeed be exotic tea-based drinks like infusions and tea lattes. The concoctions sound far too complex for quick-service places to whip out along with chicken nuggets and snack wraps.

Ah, you counter, wasn’t that once said about lattes and other coffee-based craft drinks? And doesn’t even the local bowling alley now offer cappuccinos?

Sure, anyone can prepare those drinks today. All you do is push the button on the automated dispenser. But would you want a Vanilla Rooibus Latte or a Berry Chai Infusion coming out of an idiot-proofed machine, three steps from a deep fryer? It’s like grabbing a martini in a plastic bottle from a C-store’s cooler. The experience is just different.

Vanilla Rooibus, for the record, is a hot combination of caffeine-free “botanicals,” including rooibus, an exotic red tea that’s only grown in a pocket of Africa. When the world’s ready for McRooibus, Starbucks would probably need to embrace the next drink line.

The Berry Chai Infusion consists of aronia berry and black currant juices blended with the now-familiar flavors of chai.

There’s also an Apple Chai Infusion, a Black Tea Latte, and a London Fog Latte, incorporating lavender and bergamot, a pear-shaped Asian citrus fruit.

Are drinks of that complexity and ambition really going to show up soon on the menu boards of Jack in the Box, 7-Eleven or McDonald’s?

Of course, it’s an assumption that Starbucks can cultivate a market for those beverages.

On a recent visit to my local unit, I was the fourth person in a row to order a chai latte. I’ll bet most people never heard of chai until they saw it listed on a Starbucks board. Now I can choose from four varieties in my neighborhood King Kullen (go for Good Earth or Stash, by the way).

So I’m betting that, yes, it can.

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