Putting the ‘Bar’ in Barista: Pricey Lattes, Capuccinos and Macchiatos … With a Beer Chaser?

With a serving concept originally generated about four years ago, and then intensively beta-tested, Starbucks has begun rolling out its new drink and munchies menu, serving beer, wine and its version of bar food to thousands of locations. The new wrinkle, called “Starbucks Evenings,” has been thoroughly designed and cascaded into key markets; and alcoholic beverages will be served only in locations where demand is expected to be—high.

With a serving concept originally generated about four years ago, and then intensively beta-tested, Starbucks has begun rolling out its new drink and munchies menu, serving beer, wine and its version of bar food to thousands of locations. The new wrinkle, called “Starbucks Evenings,” has been thoroughly designed and cascaded into key markets; and alcoholic beverages will be served only in locations where demand is expected to be—high.

Starbucks has reached 40, a mature middle age; and the chain has been actively seeking to rebuild and evolve its brand, and make its locations more a part of the neighborhood. The chain has tried “line extensions” in the past (Starbucks ice cream was a total disaster), but Starbucks Evenings is serious and strategic. The updated stores will have new, more muted colors in their interior design that are definitely a departure from what customers have come to expect—at a refurbishment cost that begins at $25,000 and can reach six figures. From many perspectives, this is a huge gamble for the worldwide chain.

Everyone understands the potential negatives: a compromising of Starbucks’ high-end coffee house image, and the business downside this can bring. Baristas need to be trained in how to sell alcoholic beverages, and may also need to be trained in how to deal with “overserved” customers. Finally, the company has to address how to accommodate the minors who frequent their locations in large numbers. After all, drinking coffee and tea is legal irrespective of age; and there may be challenges in setting up spaces for underage customers, for those adults who don’t want to be around alcohol, and for those customers who are only in Starbucks for beer and wine. Starbucks is convinced that won’t happen, in part because other chains—Chipotle Mexican Grill and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (though a family restaurant, it’s offering dessert/alcohol combinations, such as a Mango Moscato Wine Shake)—have been doing this for some time.

On the (calculated) plus side, the company’s approach represents an opportunity to attract customers who would like to have an alcoholic beverage in a safe, calm and pleasant atmosphere and who will pay a premium for the privilege. Some of these may be new customers, who could return during the day to enjoy Starbucks’ traditional food and beverage fare. Also, the evening food and drink menu will be served at locations near public transportation, generating high levels of foot traffic.

At the end of the day (pardon the pun), it’s all about the customer experience. Starbucks believes selling alcoholic beverages is a natural progression for the company. As stated by its spokespeople, Starbucks is all about occasions for customers to gather, relax and interact with one another. And this is particularly true in the evenings, after work and after dinner, which is usually the busiest time for coffee shops and bars.

Most observers and analysts think Starbucks will succeed. As one local daytime patron, who has now included evenings in his Starbucks visits, noted: “It’s not just the wine, it’s the unwind. The atmosphere here is all part of the experience.”

A tip of the hat, a tip of the cup and a tip of the glass to Starbucks.

What Would the Korean Taco Truck Do?

Some of the most interesting marketing ideas aren’t coming from big consumer brands and award-winning agencies, but instead from scrappy local businesses such as Kogi BBQ, AJ Bombers and The Roxy. Los Angeles-based Kogi BBQ, for example, started the mobile food truck Twitter trend and is now a marketing legend, its story covered by everyone from the New York Times to the BBC (and, coincidentally, eM+C).

It’s 12:30 in the morning and you need a Korean taco fix. No worries, Twitter is there to enable. If you live in a metropolitan area, odds are there are a dozen or more mobile food vendors that are broadcasting their latest location, specials of the day and wait time via Twitter.

Some of the most interesting marketing ideas aren’t coming from big consumer brands and award-winning agencies, but instead from scrappy local businesses such as Kogi BBQ, AJ Bombers and The Roxy. Los Angeles-based Kogi BBQ, for example, started the mobile food truck Twitter trend and is now a marketing legend, its story covered by everyone from the New York Times to the BBC (and, coincidentally, eM+C).

Another small business that’s getting its share of headlines is AJ Bombers, a Milwaukee burger joint. It made news in March when it attracted over 150 foursquare users to its restaurant who were looking to earn a coveted “Swarm Badge” — awarded when 50 or more foursquare users check in at the same time. It has since held another Swarm Badge party, most recently on foursquare day. Yes, there’s a foursquare day. It’s April 16th, mark your calendar.

When the new owner of The Roxy took over the famed L.A. nightclub, one of the first things he did was replace its website with a blog. He also collaborated with other entertainment venues on the Sunset Strip, including The Viper Room and The Comedy Store, to promote each other’s events via Twitter and Facebook. And then came the Sunset Strip Tweet Crawl, now an annual event, where tweeps (Twitter followers) enjoy free cover charges to bars and clubs on the Strip, prizes, and drinks specials announced via Twitter throughout the night.

What they’re doing right
These businesses have all succeeded in standing out by embracing new marketing techniques, letting their unique personalities shine through. But above all, they’ve maintained a relentless focus on pleasing their customers. What they’re doing feels personal because it is personal. Here’s a look at how you can do it, too.

1. Lighten up. Have some fun and don’t take yourself so seriously. Over 230 foursquare users showed up at A.J. Bombers last month to claim a custom “I’m on a Boat” Swarm badge by checking in at the kayak located at the front of the restaurant. It’s not always about the “value exchange” of coupons and points; often, good old-fashioned silliness can be an incredible motivator to join in. What’s your kayak?

2. Stay in touch. Communicate frequently with your customers. Use digital media to reflect the vibrant, living, breathing company you are. This is especially important for social media. If you have a Twitter follower base or Facebook fans, these are your hand raisers — i.e., people who want to hear from you. Talk to them; tell them what’s going on.

3. Play nice in the sandbox. Man cannot live on kimchi quesadillas alone. Many of these small businesses have a collaborative approach with their competitors. Koi Fusion, a Portland, Ore.-based Korean BBQ truck, regularly banters and sometimes smack talks with competitors such as Whiffies (the deep fried pie guys) and Potato Champion via Twitter, but also wholeheartedly cross-promotes them on its blog. Might there be alliances with “frenemies” that are mutually beneficial?

4. Behave like a person, not a “brand.”
Think about the way you’re treated by your favorite supermarket cashier, bartender or restaurant waiter. That’s the standard by which you should be addressing your customers. If you’re going to start a Twitter account or already have a Facebook page, get ready to respond. Want to see this in action? Just mention JetBlue in a tweet and see how quickly you hear back from them.

Think small

Imagine yourself in the place of these entrepreneurs. What would your company do differently if you just started a brand new business? Is it getting by on a shoestring marketing budget (OK, maybe that part doesn’t take that much imagination) with just a few hundred customers, most of whom you know by name? What would the Korean taco truck do?