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As Starbucks rolls out plan to sell beer and wine, some buzz is negative

Starbucks is introducing beer and wine to its beverage list in select locations, calling it a response to consumer requests. But many café chain regulars say they fear a change to a bar atmosphere.

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“My initial reaction to the announcement was negative, but I’m guessing it won’t change the nature of this place in the morning,” she says, reading a textbook with sunglasses. People don’t drink beer and wine in the morning. If it changes the atmosphere here, I won’t come.”

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The after-school safety factor is of concern, says advice expert April Masini, who writes the “Ask April” online advice column.

“While kids used to hang out with laptops to do homework between the hours of 3 p.m. and closing time, there will now be adults drinking and getting buzzed or drunk at the next table,” she says via email. “People who get buzzed loosen their inhibitions and this isn't conducive to mingling with the middle school and high school crowd,” she says, adding that Starbucks that serve alcohol will no longer be as safe a place to send children after school.

Mr. Hutson is quick to point out that not all of the more than 19,000 Starbucks cafés worldwide will offer wine and beer, adding that the alcoholic items will only be introduced in stores that are situated in the appropriate demographic areas, such as at shopping malls with many restaurants.

“We are responsive to our customer feedback,” he adds when asked if the company is concerned about negative pushback.

But, points out Ms. Masini, there are problems beyond family atmosphere concerns.

Another problem is that many Starbucks, like the one in Calabasas that is being targeted for alcohol sales in California, is situated by a freeway entrance and exit as well as near several schools. “Drivers who stop in for a drink and then pop back out onto the freeway are putting themselves and others in danger in a way that chugging a latte and hitting the road doesn't,” she says.

Market researcher David Henkes, who does beverage alcohol research for Technomic, a leading food and beverage consulting firm in Chicago, says the market may prevent Starbucks from expanding alcohol sales too widely. He notes that quick-service restaurants that have introduced alcoholic beverages have typically seen them account for “no more than one to two percent of sales.”

But branding is an issue for a popular chain such as Starbucks, points out PR strategist Anthony Mora, CEO of Anthony Mora Communications, Inc, and author of the PR/marketing books, “The Alchemy of Success,” and “Spin to Win.” 

He notes that the company could take an image hit regardless of whether all the cafés actually sell alcohol. Beyond that, he says, the chain may be on tricky grounds for the simple reason that 75 percent of its customers come in for take-out, a no-no for alcohol sales.

“These customers will have to stay and enjoy their beverages in-house,” he notes via email, adding that getting customers to change behavior is much harder than inducing them to try a new drink.

Staff writer Daniel B. Wood contributed to this story.

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