Can Starbucks Really Succeed As a Bar?

In December, Starbucks revealed its plan to roll out a pilot nighttime concept—Starbucks Evenings—to nearly 3,000 of its stores nationwide. Jennifer Cacicio spends a night drinking at an LA location to understand the allure of Starbucks, the wine bar.

In December, Starbucks revealed a plan to roll out its pilot nighttime concept—Starbucks Evenings—to nearly 3,000 of its stores nationwide by 2019. According to the New York Daily News, this initiative, alongside the addition of a “fleet of coffee trucks and smaller express shops,” is expected to bring in an additional one billion in sales next year.

On the Saturday night I stopped in to check out the scene, however, the clientele seemed to be sticking to a.m. standards: a distinguished grandpa reading a newspaper, sipping what—if all was right with the world—was certainly decaf; a middle-aged guy and his oversized knit scarf bent over a laptop, double Americano in fist; two suburban moms in sensible winter coats, chatting about the holidays while their kids got high on hot chocolate. The only person drinking wine was me.

Just in case you don’t make a habit of killing time at chain coffee stores after dinner in major metropolitan areas, Starbucks Evenings is a post 4 p.m. menu that offers wine, beer and small plates that scream of a simpler time—a time when bacon-wrapped dates were an innovation and calling cheese pizza a flatbread meant something. This p.m. menu began in Seattle in 2010 and is now available in more than 30 locations across the country, though some spots make more sense than others. The Starbucks in the Downtown Disney area of Orlando and those tucked into airports such as LAX and Dulles cater to exhausted parents and travelers, respectively—two consumer groups that are, by definition, in need of a drink and stymied by time and limited options.

However, other locations are in bustling downtown areas in Chicago, Portland and the aforementioned Seattle, where they compete with actual restaurants and bars that have thoughtful wine programs, far better lighting and ambience that doesn’t involve Michael Bublé or chocolate-covered graham crackers. With thousands more on the way, is it realistic that they’ll be able to compete with the vibrant food and wine scenes these cities already have to offer?

The Starbucks I visited lives in a shopping center in Calabasas, CA, a wealthy, hilly city that butts up against Malibu, just a handful of miles from the Pacific Ocean. The vibe is standard Starbucks meets a touch of trying too hard, with high ceilings, a long communal table they hope you’ll book for your next book club and one wall made of wooden wine boxes. The sweet barista behind the counter seemed only a moment over 21 and when I expressed interest in the wine list, the dark ponytail jutting out of her green Starbucks hat seemed to wag from side to side in eager approval. She was excited—desperate, even—to pour me a glass of whatever I wanted, though she favored the pinot noir from Santa Barbara. It arrived just like a latte: on the adjacent counter a few minutes later, though in place of a red paper cup bearing my name misspelled in magic marker was a stemless wine glass (made of real glass, at least) with the words permission to relax printed along the curve. It was also served with a small dish of spiced pepitas that “complement every glass of wine on our list.”

In terms of those lists, each offers ten by the glass and/or bottle: one prosecco, one brachetto, plus three whites and five reds that vary according to location. In the LA area, four out of those five reds are from California, ranging from Apothic ($6), a red blend from the ubiquitous label owned by E & J Gallo Winery that you’ll also find among the shelves of Costco and Trader Joe’s, to “Justification” ($15), another red blend, this one from Justin Winery, a family-owned producer in Paso Robles that sells about 100,000 cases a year. In Seattle and Portland, the lists lean more toward wineries in the Northwest. In Chicago, it’s heavy on Italy, because, well, who knows. For now, the intentions and inspirations behind Starbucks’ wine selections remain a mystery. The company has stated that the wines have been chosen by a “certified sommelier who works at Starbucks HQ,” but they’ve never released a name. My requests for an interview with this mystery sommelier or anyone else who oversees the wine program were politely declined.

We can assume, however, that after four years of testing the program, the choice to expand suggests a certain amount of success. The Calabasas location has been serving since November of 2012, and according to its employees, business has been steadily growing. In the last few months alone, sales have gone from four to five units per day to about nine or ten, each unit being a glass of wine, beer or food item. “Starbucks wants you to start your day here and end your day here,” my barista told me with a smile, swiping my credit card with a flourish.

Starbucks isn’t the first fast-food or fast-casual chain to add alcohol to its offerings, but the notion of Chipotle selling Margaritas alongside its burritos and McDonald’s serving beer with its Big Macs speaks to a certain rounding out of an experience the consumer is already having. Starbucks Evenings is unique because—as the barista pointed out—it asks its customers to return to their morning stop-off for a separate nighttime experience.

Of course it makes sense for Starbucks to boost its post-sunset sales. USA Today reported that the company does 70 percent of its business before 2 p.m., and according to Fortune, the expansion of Starbucks Evenings and other recent initiatives are part of the company’s efforts to “broaden its appeal as a destination.” Whether or not it succeeds might depend on which of its 3,000 stores Starbucks chooses to launch the evening concept in.

If the master plan is to infiltrate every suburban Starbucks with generic wine and hope for the best, they might do okay, but if they aim to siphon off wine drinkers from big city lists, they’re going to have to try a whole lot harder. Part of the wine bar allure is a sommelier with a unique point of view, servers who know their stuff, ambience that makes you want to stick around for another glass and food that truly complements the booze.  And as I sat down with my glass of mediocre pinot and bowl of pumpkin seeds in front of a large chalkboard drawing bearing vines and grapes dripping juice alongside the words good things happen when the sun goes down, I found myself flipping through my phone, searching for the nearest bar.