Competition Grows for Espresso To Go

By Jake Batsell
Seattle Times business reporter

December 12, 2002

The laid-back, relaxing ambience of the coffeehouse helped convert more than half of Americans into espresso drinkers during the 1990s. But what about the customer who doesn’t have time to linger?

Cozy as they may be, sit-down espresso cafes often aren’t an option for the on-the-go commuter or the harried parent with a car full of kids. In the coffee-laden Northwest, such time-pressed customers get their java fix by pulling up to the nearest drive-thru.

Drive-thrus, however, are less common beyond the Northwest. One industry consultant says there may be fewer than 100 in California, and they’re even scarcer in other parts of the country. To fill that void, coffee retailers are scrambling for a piece of the industry’s next frontier.

“The drive-thru race is just kind of getting started,” said Steve Schickler, president of Seattle Coffee, parent company of Seattle’s Best Coffee and Torrefazione Italia.

Seattle’s Best has developed a double-window drive-thru it plans to begin testing early next year, and cross-town rival Starbucks recently announced plans to add more drive-thrus. Several regional chains around the country also are trying to expand the concept through franchising.

Even in a coffee Mecca like the Puget Sound region, industry players say there is room for more drive-thrus, particularly for those with a spiffier feel than the typical roadside coffee stand. BigFoot Java® , a Pacific-based chain of six 24-hour drive-thrus in south King and Pierce counties, beckons customers with a mountain-cabin look the company describes as “neo-Northwest.”

BigFoot has its own blend of coffee and stresses quick service, equipping its new drive-thrus with dual sliding doors so baristas can walk orders out to customers. The company plans to add six locations next year and is building a new headquarters and training center in Kent to train franchisees.

“It’s not going to put anyone out of business, but it’s going to raise the level of quality people expect from a drive-thru,” said David Morris, part owner of BigFoot.

Bruce Milletto, president of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup in Eugene, Ore., said the drive-thru format also is gaining momentum among mom-and-pop sellers. This year, Milletto’s consulting group has sold about 1,000 copies of a guide it publishes on how to open a drive-thru. It sold about 500 last year.

Industry groups don’t know exactly how many drive-thrus exist. The topic is popular at trade shows, Milletto said, because drive-thrus offer entrepreneurs the chance to enter the specialty coffee industry at a relatively low cost.

“It’s very rare that you can get into a complete business for under $150,000 and still have a chance to be successful,” Milletto said.

The industry’s biggest players also are pushing ahead with the drive-thru concept. Starbucks has 210 among its 4,700-plus stores in North America, and Chief Executive Orin Smith told analysts in October that they will make up a much larger proportion of the company’s new stores. Starbucks is testing a drive-through-only format in several markets.

Yes, this is the same chain that rose to prominence by romanticizing the coffeehouse as a “third place” where customers can relax away from home and work. Smith said Starbucks will continue to tout the traditional coffeehouse experience but wants to do more to appeal to those who don’t have time to stop in.

Smith gave the example of a mother running errands with her two kids.

“She just passes us by,” he said. “Now, she’s got another option.”

Seattle’s Best plans to unveil its first drive-thru early next year, probably in the Puget Sound region. Its model will have a premium feel and likely will be in the parking lot of a major retailer, Schickler said.

Drive-thrus are less common outside the Northwest because customers first needed to get used to espresso before demanding it in a more convenient format, Milletto said.

“First, you have to go through the learning process of, ‘What is specialty coffee?'” Milletto said. “You’re not going to stop at a drive-thru when you’re not sure what the product’s all about.”

With Americans commuting longer distances than ever, it’s almost inevitable that demand will rise for drive-thrus, said Michael Marsden, a professor of English and cultural studies at Eastern Kentucky University who has researched the role of the automobile in American life.

“People want their fix,” Marsden said. “If they can get it in their car, why not? Our car is our outer skin. It is the way we see the world, and we don’t want to get out of it.”

Drive-thru banks and pharmacies have been around for years, and Marsden said he’s even heard of funeral parlors with drive-thru viewings and a drive-thru brothel in Germany.

“I think it’s inevitable that once people get used to a certain activity, if you make it more convenient for them, they’re obviously going to choose it,” Marsden said.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company