Starbucks Rolls Out the Cheap Stuff in Chicago

Wednesday, Mar 4, 2009  |  Updated 8:50 AM CDT
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Starbucks' Via Debuts in Chicago

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Starbucks Via Ready Brew instant coffee sells for $2.99 for a package of 3 or $9.95 for a box of 12.

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Starbucks' Via Debuts in Chicago

Starbucks' new ready brew will cost a buck a cup, but will it measure up in taste?
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Alongside its flashy array of triple espressos, foamy cappuccinos and half-caff extra-hot flavored lattes, Starbucks Corp. unveiled its newest coffee drink Tuesday: a cup of average, instant Joe served up for the equally proletarian price of about a dollar a cup.

Hoping to convince recession-shocked customers to return to the brand that's spent years cultivating coffee connoisseurs, Starbucks is at first offering instant coffee only in Chicago and the chain's home base of Seattle.

Executives hope the water-soluble "Via" -- sold in three- and 12-packs -- will reinvigorate the chain's sagging sales and profits, and give it an edge in the globe's $17 billion market for instant coffee.

Sleepy-eyed commuters in Chicago's Loop clamored for free samples of the brew in stores Tuesday morning. And 15 "Ready Brew" vehicles hit the streets to hand out samples to the uncaffeinated who trudged to work.

By midday, as traffic slowed, baristas explained to customers that the Colombia variety of the coffee will go well in iced drinks once the city's brutal winter gives way to spring.

Bond trader David Jennings, a 50-year-old whose daily routine involves at least six -- yes, six -- shots of espresso by midday in addition to black coffee and decaf before bed, snagged a 12-pack of Via for $9.95.

"I think it's better than the old Folgers instant coffee that my mother gave me when I was a little boy," he said. "This stuff is actually really good. I think it's actually better than their regular coffee, because I can regulate how strong I want it with hot water."

Jennings said he also plans to keep Via in his backpack for camping trips, swapping it for the fresh-ground coffee and French press he typically carries.

Not everyone is embracing Starbucks' ready-in-seconds alternative.

Seattle resident Lester Perez, a self-described coffee snob, said he fell in love with instant coffee while in Europe and now drinks Jacobs instant coffee, a German brand.

So what are the chances he'll switch to the hometown instant?

"I'll try it. But I'm not holding my breath," the 37-year-old software engineer said after passing over a cup of Via for a regular, drip coffee with milk.

Starbucks hopes Via will help it boost traffic in the afternoon and evening, when customers are more likely to want a single cup of coffee. It's also hoping Via will revive the chain's overall sales, which have fallen in recent quarters amid the recession and increased competition from McDonald's Corp., among others.

Starbucks reported in January that its fiscal first-quarter profit slumped 69 percent. It also announced plans to slash nearly 7,000 more jobs during a new round of store closures and other cuts.

Via, which will initially be sold Colombia and Italian Roast varieties, will be available nationwide in the fall. It's also available online.

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