- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

SEATTLE - Leaning out of the window of her sport utility vehicle, Tami Cornwell orders the same drink she gets almost every day: “Double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.”

The high-tech recruiter has become hooked on the growing number of drive-through coffee shops that Starbucks has been opening in recent years.

“On weekends, I like to go into the store,” she said one morning at a drive-through on her way to work. “On the weekdays, it’s more about convenience and caffeine.”

The world’s largest specialty coffee chain once shunned the drive-through concept, fearing it might alienate customers who like to come inside and sip their lattes while listening to music in cozy chairs.

In the early 1990s, as independent espresso stands were starting to gain a steady following on the West Coast, Starbucks stuck to its original game plan: giving people a “third place” to escape from the hustle and bustle of home and work.

Eventually, it got hard to ignore coffee lovers’ demand for a quick java fix without leaving the warmth of their driver’s seats.

“We have a habit of giving customers what they want, and when a customer has six kids in their car or their favorite pets and it’s raining or snowing, that’s creating an experience for them that will want to make them use a drive-through,” said Jim Donald, Starbucks’ president and chief executive.

Starbucks started testing the market in 1994, opening its first drive-throughs in car-crazed Southern California. It had dozens of drive-throughs doing brisk business within a few years.

There were 170 and counting by 2001. It opened 354 drive-throughs in the United States during its latest fiscal year, pushing its nationwide total to 1,065 — nearly 15 percent of its roughly 7,300 domestic stores.

Fiscal 2005, which ended Oct. 2, marked the first time drive-throughs comprised more than half of Starbucks’ new company-operated stores — those that aren’t licensed in airports, hotels or grocery stores.

The company now has drive-throughs in every state but Vermont and Wyoming. Around the world, Canada has 35 drive-throughs, Japan has nine, Mexico has four, and Puerto Rico and Indonesia have one each.

Aside from the headset-wearing baristas, the ambiance in many of its drive-throughs reveals the same attention to decor Starbucks gives its traditional stores, with cushy chairs and art on the walls.

Drive-throughs will continue to add to Starbucks’ bottom line, making up about half of the new stores the company opens domestically over the next few years, Mr. Donald said.

Starbucks would not disclose how much drive-throughs have boosted its revenues, though Mr. Donald said they tend to post higher first-year sales, averaging about $1 million, compared with roughly $715,000 for traditional stores.

Bruce Milletto, president of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup in Portland, Ore., said he was surprised it took so long for Starbucks to get into the drive-through business.

His consulting firm has helped thousands of small businesses open coffee shops and drive-throughs over the past 15 years, he said.

He has heard clients sneer at Starbucks, denouncing the company as a corporate giant that is bound to try to put them out of business. He tries to convince them it’s not such a David-versus-Goliath battle.

“Starbucks is oftentimes, to the small independent coffee entrepreneur, thought of as the devil to the industry. What most people don’t realize is that, without Starbucks, the industry wouldn’t have exploded as it has,” Mr. Milletto said.

Espresso drive-throughs dot so many parking lots and street corners in Seattle and its surrounding suburbs that some have difficulty surviving.

“You get customers by stealing from other drive-throughs,” said Mark Weber, owner of Scooter’s Espresso in Seattle’s Pinehurst neighborhood. “You’re not creating new customers.”

Mr. Weber gets enough morning rush-hour customers to be breaking even after about five months in operation. He has tried to drum up new business by offering 20 percent off coffee drinks from noon to closing time, but that hasn’t received much of a response.

As he sees it, Starbucks’ growing drive-through presence is making it harder on independents.

“They take away a lot of business away from the small operations,” he said. “They were the only game in town for years, so they’ve built up their market share. … They’re masters at marketing, no doubt about it.”

Critics have long derided Starbucks as the McDonald’s of coffee. Now some chuckle that drive-throughs just make them look more like the Golden Arches.

Mr. Donald bristles at such a suggestion: “We are not the McDonald’s of anything,” he said.

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