Starbucks is seeing Prince George's County as the next frontier for its premium coffees and specialty espresso drinks.
The Seattle-based coffeemaker this month opened its fifth coffee store in the county in the Marlboro Village Shopping Center in Upper Marlboro. Starbucks has stores in Bowie, Forestville, Greenbelt and Laurel.
Coming next, a store in College Park early next year, featuring a drive-through window that serves lunch--a first in Prince George's. The other Starbucks drive-throughs in the area are in Gaithersburg and Burtonsville in neighboring Montgomery County.
Before Starbucks arrived in Prince George's three years ago, coffee drinkers had few choices for premium (and costly) coffee. Quartermaine's and the Coffee Beanery Ltd. don't have stores in Prince George's County, leaving fast-food chains like McDonald's, 7-Eleven and Dunkin' Donuts among the few options.
"When we look for sites, we look for two things: We look for foot traffic and high visibility," said Lynn Eckert, director of marketing in the northeastern region. Starbucks now has 85 stores in the Washington area.
Eckert declined to talk about what kind of marketing studies the company did before moving into Prince George's.
But the coffee-drinking public appears receptive.
A simple cuppa joe no longer goes by that name. To order their drinks, more people are learning the lexicon of coffee. Starbucks serves Frappuccinos, Macchiatos, breves, lattes and the like, all of which are variations on the same pressed black coffee, milk, cream, sugar and flavoring.
"I wanted to open up a Starbucks in Upper Marlboro myself, but then I found out it wasn't a franchise," said John "Chip" Mavilia, whose devotion to the drink means gulping four or five cups a day. He's a cream-and-sugar kind of guy who usually makes it himself at his Upper Marlboro home, but during a recent midafternoon coffee break, he stopped by the new store to pick up a decaffeinated cafe mocha and a muffin.
"I don't smoke, so I gotta do something," Mavilia said. He is vice president of J&L Mavilia Inc., an Upper Marlboro contracting company, and has to wake up about 5:30 a.m. He has made the conversion to decaf because the high-test stuff "makes me too jittery," he said.
Starbucks is reaping huge profits from the growing demand for premium coffee, with customers willing to pay $3 or more a cup. "There are more and more people drinking higher-quality espresso drinks," said Richard Fradin, an analyst with William Blair & Co. in Chicago. Competition depends on the market, but no one approaches Starbucks' national reach, Fradin said.
That means a huge influx of cash for the company. Starbucks, publicly traded since 1992, has boomed with 2,200 locations worldwide and revenue for fiscal 1999 of $1.7 billion. The company opens about 400 new stores a year nationally.
High-quality coffee is popular among all races, ethnicities and income brackets these days, said Francine Greene, store manager at the company's Forestville location, which serves 300 to 600 customers every day. "People here, unless they worked downtown or something, are just starting to experience espresso drinks," she said. The pricier drinks appeal to novice coffee drinkers because they are sweet and creamy, she said.
The biggest hit by far, Greene said, is the caramel Macchiato, a combination of foamed milk, espresso and vanilla extract with caramel syrup on top. Even at the premium price of $2.75 to $3.55 a cup, "every other drink we're making a caramel Macchiato," she said.
The new store in Upper Marlboro plans a grand opening celebration Nov. 20 and will publicize its location to the business and government offices around the corner by handing out free coffee, said Natasha Adams, the new store manager.
Starbucks Corp. was born in 1971 in the open market of Pike Place Market in Seattle, which produced the amalgam of alternative and yuppie cultures that the contemporary decor of the Upper Marlboro store evokes. It expanded into Washington in 1993, at which point it had 272 locations across the country, mostly in urban centers and suburbs around those centers.
Starbucks is not without its critics, though, who mostly lambaste the store for what they say is a consumer unfriendly corporate mentality underlying the funky, offbeat image the company cultivates. One Web site, www.Starbucked.com, collects consumer complaints and bad experiences with the company. The Web site criticizes poor customer service, an unresponsiveness to customer complaints and defective machines sold at stores.
Every store manager is empowered to solve those problems, Eckert said. So far, Adams said that she has kept her customers happy. She makes it a point to know her regulars and even has a loyal following of customers she met working at the Silver Spring Starbucks who drive to Upper Marlboro to visit her, she said.
CAPTION: Above, Ashley Newman, left, and Charrise Smith serve lattes at the new Starbucks in Upper Marlboro. Below, customers line up on a Sunday morning at the Upper Marlboro coffee shop.