The highly caffeinated world of Starbucks soon could become a little more mellow, at least at four locations in the Prince William area.
The Seattle-based chain plans to begin selling beer and wine this week at several of its coffeehouses in Northern Virginia. The rollout of new products could take awhile, but it will include one store each in Woodbridge, Manassas, Gainesville and Haymarket.
The move is part of the addition of what Starbucks calls its “Evenings” menu to existing establishments. The stores will offer a wine selection and craft beers, as well as small plates of food designed to be shared, including items such as artichoke dip or truffle macaroni and cheese.
“By expanding our offerings to include food and drinks that are more suitable for the evening hours, we are enhancing our role as a gathering place for the community throughout the day and into the evening,” Starbucks spokeswoman Holly Hart Shafer said in an email last week.
The Northern Virginia coffee shops and some others in the state are among a few hundred nationwide slated to begin selling alcohol this year. Starbucks has active or pending licenses to sell wine and beer at 47 locations in Virginia, according to the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The coffee giant’s first “Evenings” venture was at a Seattle store in 2010. The menu has been instituted in more than 300 stores across the United States, but the only Starbucks where customers can now buy alcohol in this region is at Dulles International Airport.
Some other order-at-the-counter-style chains serve alcohol. An example is Chipotle, which has restaurants near the Woodbridge and Manassas Starbucks locations where “Evenings” menus are planned.
But the addition of alcohol at a place where caffeine is generally king doesn’t sit well with everyone.
For example, Greg Williams, who wrote and produced the addiction-recovery documentary “The Anonymous People” (2013), said that Starbucks serves wine and beer at the risk of losing business from customers in Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups.
The company has famously taken stands against gun violence and for military veterans, he said, but it’s embracing alcohol, which contributes to safety issues with guns and health problems for veterans.
“This is a big thing,” said Williams, who has been in recovery for 14 years and who co-founded the national advocacy group Facing Addiction.
But beyond any kind of “social responsibility” factor, he said, are economic facts: About 23 million Americans are in recovery, and Starbucks is a “key vendor” to this population, whose members like to drink coffee and to gather in alcohol-free establishments.
“It’s literally about consumer preference,” Williams said.
Branding consultant Scott Bedbury said, however, it is not as if Starbucks is creating an atmosphere where patrons will be throwing down shots of Jägermeister.
The notion is to provide a “safe, neighborhood place” where customers can enjoy a glass of wine or a craft beer without the hassles of the bar scene, said Bedbury, former chief marketing officer for Starbucks.
And offering a pinot along with a Pike Place Roast makes American coffee shops even more like the traditional coffeehouses of Europe, he said, where alcohol options are common.
“It’s not a new idea,” said Bedbury, who runs a consulting business called Brandstream.
Starbucks’s effort makes sense in other ways, too, he said.
Although it is associated with coffee drinkers, Starbucks has a large percentage of customers — maybe as many as 25 percent — who order something other than regular joe, Bedbury said.
Also, if a store can stay open later because of the initiative, that means more hours that employees can work, and more time in which Starbucks can make money.
The business may be able to make some extra money off of Wes Downs. He said he probably could go for an alcoholic beverage at Starbucks, although his regular order is a caramel Frappuccino.
The Woodbridge resident, interviewed outside the coffee shop near Potomac Mills, where beer and wine sales are planned, voiced a word of caution, however.
Starbucks customers are used to grabbing a drink to go and quickly heading out the door, Downs said. But the chain should foster an environment where patrons stick around a bit before driving if they’ve had alcohol instead of java, he said.
“If they do it responsibly,” Downs said of Starbucks, “I think it will be good.”