Starbucks revamps menu . . . again

On June 30, Starbucks is changing its menu. Again. Gone are the high-fructose corn-syrup-laden muffins, artificially flavored snacks and artificially colored pastries. Instead, the world's most ubiquitous coffee chain will serve up a selection of more healthful, more natural offerings, including a line of salads.

It seems like only yesterday that Starbucks decided to reboot its menu. Actually, it practically was yesterday: last September, the company began offering a line of nutritious breakfast items to position itself as a healthier alternative to fast food. In February, the company added a line of coffee/sandwich breakfast combos designed to steal bargain-minded fast-food customers. All told, the moves have helped make Starbucks a credible alternative to its more mass-market brethren.

But in fighting fast food, Starbucks has also tried to remain separate from the pack. In this context, the company's latest move is less of a grab for market share and more of a branding initiative. Starbucks aims for a more health-conscious clientele, concerned with HCFCs and artificial ingredients, than most fast-food consumers. And although salads have long been a fixture on fast-food menus, Starbucks's contribution will presumably be as idiosyncratic as the rest of its menu.

And that menu is certainly unique. While its critics tend to view the company's food offerings as the weak link in its business, the company has carved a place for itself. Its breakfast sandwiches clearly share ancestry with McMuffins and Croissan'wiches, but little details like pepper bacon and sharp cheddar cheese place the emphasis more on flavor and less on fodder. Even Starbucks and multigrain rolls are miles above french toast sticks and flapjacks. (Full disclosure, I really like Starbucks's breakfast offerings, in case that's not clear. The coffee . . . not so much.)

While Starbucks vacillates between competing with and differentiating itself from fast food, it seems to be carving out a fresh space in the market: convenient meals concerned with flavor. With restaurants like Chipotle and Baja Fresh zeroing in on the same territory, it will be interesting to see what happens to the face of fast food in America.
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