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July 25, 2009

Starbucks Petri Dish: 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea

A Starbucks location once destined for closure has re-emerged as 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea. No Starbucks logo. No venti-sized cups. No sassy promotional signage. No automated espresso machines. The location is designed to look, feel, and act not like a Starbucks, but rather a one-off local boutique coffee shop.


On the surface, it appears to be an odd move. Why spend so many years building a global brand only to reject most everything about it? The answer … TO LEARN.

This is clearly an experiment, a four-wall enclosed retail petri dish. It’s a way for Starbucks to RE-learn some of the personal touches it has lost due to making so many compromises in order to grow to over 16,000 locations in 40-plus countries around the world. (We’ve gone over all these compromises on past Starbucks postings so read-up if need be.)

Some of these re-learning opportunities include:

Coffee served at 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea is roasted in small batches and brewed within days of roasting. (Coffee served at Starbucks is roasted in mega-huge industrial machines and could be months before it is brewed in-store.)

Espresso served at 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea is drawn from a classic La Marzocco machine and baristas will add latte art flair to drinks. (Starbucks uses automated espresso machines and baristas are too busy to add latte art touches to espresso drinks.)

Passion for coffee oozes at 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea. Limited-edition roasts are served through single-serving low-tech brewers (pour-over, press pots) or a high-tech brewer (Clover). (Starbucks uses large-scale brewers to mass brew gallons at a time.)

Pastries served at 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea are from a local bakery. Baked daily and delivered daily. (Starbucks sells lots of “thaw and serve” pastries baked in far-off places that are then frozen, packed, and shipped to stores for serving days later.)

Ambiance at 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea will be warm, welcoming, eclectic, and subtle. (Ambiance at nearly every Starbucks is uniformly clean, cold, and sterile.)

15th Ave. Coffee & Tea is not a growth vehicle for Starbucks. Can’t be. It’s too expensive and time-intensive to scale. It can only be viewed as a learning opportunity for Starbucks.

Perhaps some of the learnings on how to add personal touches will find its way back into the Starbucks experience thanks to the company’s petri dish known as 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea.


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Like pruning back the rose bush, or blowing the dust off the founder's notes in the archives.
Thanks for sharing.

Very interesting... the only thing I don't understand is why you can't scale this... Industry logic tells us no... but this is exactly the point, every time you say something can't be done that is where the potential is... So the w´question should be - How can Starbucks scale this?

I'd like to think people will see through this -- note the "hand-stamped" cups...the logo is the in the exact same place on every cup and the print is the same fade, so they were custom printed?

Isn't that kinda like seeing a "local" sign hanging in the produce section at wal-mart?

It is as if an independent coffeehouse was given an unlimited budget for build-out and the bank never wanted to see a performa. I don't think it's realistic to follow as a business model, and therefore...

It may still work as a "petri dish" for Starbucks, but I think it's a flawed experiment because it is so unauthentic.

Nevertheless, I'm enthralled and will continue to watch the store's performance!

A couple of days ago I saw on-line an article from the Seattle paper saying how Starbucks had 'ripped off' the design of this 'experiment' from a group of restaurants developed over the past five years by a women entrepreneur! Smiths is the cafe/restaurant right next do to this new non-starbucks, and the article points out how the Starbucks designers even copied the unique paint coloring in Smiths (as well a features like natural wood, etc). They even had the gall to ask her where she had bought the outdoor shades for the front of her restaurant!!! Total lack of imagination!

Exquisite article.

I completely agree - it is an experiment. Old context, new content.

Thomas Stack wrote, "How can Starbucks scale this?"

Thomas, Starbucks already scaled this into becoming the Starbucks we know today. Problem with scaling is COMPROMISE. Anytime a business “mass produces” something, compromises occur.

Think of a recipe for homemade cookies. This recipe yields two dozen of the most delicious cookies ever. Scale that recipe to yield 80,000 dozen cookies every day and lots changes. Industrial ovens replace the household oven used. Bulk ingredients replace hand-picked ingredients. Complex systematic procedures insure each cookie is the same diameter, the same weight, the same everything when scale happens. After enough compromises and changes take place from scaling, the taste of the cookie changes. It just doesn’t taste the same.

I bet McDonald’s used to make a very good hamburger. Not today. Scale happened.
I bet Quiznos used to make a very good sandwich. Not today. Scale happened.
I bet Taco Bell used to make a very good taco. Not today. Scale happened.

Very few companies retain its specialness after it decides to scale. At some point, too many compromises are made for the sake of growth and all those nuanced compromises, when added together, result in a product that no longer resembles the original intent. That’s exactly where Starbucks is today. Maybe 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea will teach Starbucks all the compromises they’ve made to grow have truly changed the original intent of the company.

Hey John,
I'm in your camp. I think it's great that they are experimenting. And yes, they have travelled the world, not just Seattle, to seek inspiration (i.e., beg, borrow, & steal) for their new concept. But then, who doesn't in some way?

I love this quote from Marcel Proust - "The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes". Starbucks will internalize all their learnings and from this petri-dish come up with something very appetizing -of that I am sure. I'm still holding on to my stock.

I did notice that their website doesn't mention the "Inspired by Starbucks" line that was on the front of the door. Do you think they need to be transparent in letting people know that this store is affiliated with Starbucks?

Jackie ... Starbucks does look foolish by not mentioning it. People know. Hard to keep secrets these days. Starbucks should mention 'Starbucks' somewhere on the website for 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea.

Not sure the "Inspired by Starbucks" line fits. A more fitting line would be ... INSPIRED BY STARBUCKS PAST.

you might remember a while back that I'd mentioned them trying to go back in time by resurrecting the Il Giornale brand in an attempt to have a "do over"...

this is that "do over" I think...

Pat ... one aspect to all this I found most interesting is how Starbucks had to outsource training of its 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea Baristas because they were using the La Marzocco and not the automated machine. Ouch.

The whole idea of a community coffeehouse is one Starbucks had in mind from its very beginnings. As noted by others though, it's tough to go big. To do it, you need to compromise and make tradeoffs. Also, it's hard to be distinctive when you're copying something (in this case, coffee stores) 16,000 times!

I think Starbucks is on the right path. Instead of cookie cutting, they are aiming to create a distinctive, compelling experience for local consumers. To me, this is a worthwhile experiment, one that could expand its base of customers and build a stronger set of brand loyalties.

If anyone is interested, I've blogged on this topic @ the On Brands blog:

This sounds a lot more like something I would enjoy and you nailed almost every reason why I don't go to Starbucks.

It's my understanding that 15th Street also differs in that it will be serving wine and beer. With all the differences so far identified, this seems more than a brand extension (Starbucks Extreme). Its more like GM introducing a line called Pontiac even though they already have Oldsmobile. Different markets, different appeals, both transportation.

So I applaud Starbucks for seeing this distinction and creating a new brand. Al Ries and Jack Trout would appraud as well.

This is really a shame, and completely ironic. Here they've been putting the little guy out of business for years as they grow their corporate brand - and now they're coming back, sending scouts into local coffee shops and trying to compete on their own level. The only reason they're hiding their brand is because they know they'll never gain the support of the die hard locals. This cloak and dagger approach won't fool anyone in the long run.

I personally like what they are doing here. In order to continue growing they understand that they need to take a step back first. The decor reminds me of the original Starbucks near the fish market.

Ugh! Why don't you lunkheads focus all this masturbatory self-indulgence on something that will help the world? Chewing, rechewing, egesting, and then re-ingesting the minute details of what a 'non-starbucks' does is revoltingly effete. If you think it matters a whit, try trading that digested dialogue for some food on the street or perhaps rent? Get out of your insulated pretend worlds and volunteer, plant a tree, shop for an invalid. We need practical solutions that connect people, not imaginary ruminations on possibile meanings.

Feeling better Sarah? Hope so.

This is such an interesting experiment for Starbucks to try out. I haven't heard much around these stores but just to acknowledge that there are things to learn from running stores like these is, in my opinion, very cutting edge and forward-thinking. I would argue, however, that Starbucks will have a tough time truly getting out of the way to learn from the experience but I do applaud the effort.

Let the learning begin.

Rain Forest Cafe, 15th Ave. Coffee &'s all faux to me!

Sorry Sarah McB, why are you on the internet again and not implementing practical solutions?

This is a very interesting experiment. It amazes me how such a large organization keeps coming up with new and clever ideas. It’s good to see that even the corporate monsters are capable of thinking outside of the box.

It is definitely an experiment. I hope they learn from it, and that the local community benefits.

The STARBUCKS brand is powerful, and has its followers. It also has its enemies. This 15th Street "experiment" is for them.

There is no trademark being sought with the new store, so it can no grow as a brand the way STARBUCKS did. It will be interesting to see if this shop succeeds.

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