Starbucks in stealth mode: Just add beer

On the front of the store will be an understated, inconsequential name: 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea. Just like most of the hyper-local coffee shops, it will sell a variety of its own brand of coffee drinks and premium teas, as well as wine and beer. Being named after the street on which it's located? Gives it a "community personality," says one of its managers. In the location, which used to be a Starbucks (SBUX), a rustic-orange background with a blackboard-style sign announces, "YOUR neighborhood coffee shop is getting a makeover."

Power to the independents? Down with big corporate McSame coffee? Ummm, not so much. Starbucks is going stealth. It's taking down its branding in this Seattle store in the Capital Hill neighborhood and replacing it with a new concept that will also be unveiled in two other new and yet-to-be-named Seattle-area locations: which can be described as Starbucks Stealth (just add beer).

Most troubling, however, is how the chain came up with its concept, says the Seattle Times: by endlessly studying its new competition. According to the owner of Seattle Coffee Works at Pike Place Market, a large group of Starbucks employees visited several times, crowding into his tiny store. "Just looking." He finally got fed up and called Starbucks PR. Another small coffee shop nearby , Victrola Coffee Roasters, never called off the Starbucks reps, who visited many times with folders marked "Observation." (Cue the music from Gattaca.)

One analyst posits the chain is working to "capture some other segment of the market that would otherwise be disillusioned by a large corporate chain"; another says the brand is struggling with its "premium" (read: expensive) image.

In the Pacific Northwest, there are two sorts of successful coffee shops: the ubiquitous chains like Peet's and Starbucks where loyal, wide-eyed fans flock to get a "predictable" treat (and often, for the association with their perception of a popular brand); and the other kind, the one this new Starbucks venture is trying to be, where customers who reject corporate sameness and value truly great coffee drinks geek out, proudly greeting the owners by name and knowing the baristas by the music playing over the sound system. There's a sense of place; there's usually a lot of quirks and inconsistencies; customers get indy street cred because they're voting with their dollar against big corporations.

Bring a big corporation into the mix with local-sounding names, corporate spies, and field trips to real live independent coffee shops and put on a black t-shirt with "I'm authentic!" in bold letters? It feels inauthentic to make fun of that. It's just too obvious and easy.

I can't predict, though, that this will play well at poetry readings and in the makeshift patios at local, truly independent coffee shops around the Pacific Northwest. Whether it will play well with consumers here in Portland and Seattle is doubtful; although (and I hate to say this) I can imagine it doing very well in the country's middle.

And now, off to drink some Stumptown Coffee (sounds good, hmmm, Starbucks? But sorry! The name's already taken).,feedConfig,entry&id=547819&pid=547818&uts=1247782110
The World's Best-Selling Beer Brands
Starbucks plans to start selling beer at some of its new "stealth" locations. Click through the gallery to see the beer brands with the most sales worldwide.
Sheng Li, Reuters / Landov
Sheng Li, Reuters / Landov
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