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Food & Wine Don’t be so quick to raise a glass to Starbucks’ half-full wine-and-beer strategy

Denise Balkissoon

Kevin Gonsalves

In an extremely confusing decision, Starbucks Canada is going to deal with its flatlining coffee business by serving … wine.

The once-unstoppable coffee behemoth is being set on from all sides: with Tim Hortons maintaining first place status north of the 49 parallel, the green mermaid has recently been squeezed out of second place by, of all places, McCafe. If that weren't painful enough, it also has to contend with the relentless, caffeinated drive of indie upstarts, where the music is actually cool and the tattooed baristas are very serious about foam art.

With a plan to open 500 – yes, 500 – new Canadian locations in the next half-decade, Starbucks knows it needs a sexy new revenue stream. And nothing says sexy like Starbucks Evenings, a wine, beer and "tapas" menu available after 4 p.m., offering formerly trendy dishes such as truffle mac and cheese and grilled vegetables with aioli. It's about time for chain restaurants to jump on the small plate and flatbread bandwagons, since they were innovative about eight years ago: Even so, this branching out is probably not going to bring Starbucks the success it desires, which would be much more likely to happen were they to focus on their core strengths instead.

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Here's the first problem with the "delicious bites to eat" promised by Starbucks Evenings: Most fans of grilled vegetables want their vegetables grilled on-site, not many kilometres away before getting a quick turn around the microwave. There's a reason that two out of three people don't buy food with their Starbucks coffee, and it's not because they're not hungry. It's cause the food is kinda gross. In 2012, the company spent $100-million (U.S.) for San Francisco bakery La Boulange, anticipating great demand for fresh, delicious pastries. It was a flop, because pastries are only fresh and delicious when they're actually fresh: Artisanal is an annoying word, but it's also a real thing. The line was reduced and heavily tinkered with Stateside, so it's not clear why Canadians should be excited that La Boulange goods will be available here in a couple of months.

Some of the new ideas might work – quick service walk-ups? Sure. Nobody likes waiting for coffee. But Starbucks should take note of the original American fast-food brand, McDonald's, which is currently having a serious identity crisis. The explosion of craft-burger restaurants has exposed the pathetic McD's sandwich for the travesty it always was, while its weird "international" and "healthy" options never tasted remotely good. Instead of choosing one thing and excelling at it, McDonald's tried to do everything, and was outshone on every front.

Which is why Starbucks shouldn't try to please its 60-per-cent-female customer base by giving them a chance to drink wine at pressed plyboard tables because, so their reasoning goes, women don't like bars. What a silly thing to say. Women (nay, people) like bars, a lot – and they also really, really like coffee. Coffee consumption just keeps on rising, all over the world, and two-thirds of Canadian adults drink at least one cup every day.

How about good coffee, Starbucks, brew that doesn't taste like burning? Quit destroying tapas, and truffles and decades of booze-fuelled feminism. Just make a good cup of coffee, one that people want to drink.

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