How to Learn From Starbucks’ Boozy New Moves

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It sounds like an alcoholic's fever dream come true, but, well, it is true: Starbucks is starting to roll out a new "Evenings" menu that features wine, beer and nighttime-appropriate snacks. Okay, well, maybe alcoholics won't really care about the snacks, but, yes, Starbucks is kicking the tires on serving spirits nearby in Schaumburg and four other Chicagoland suburbs, like Burr Ridge Village.

It's like a weird permutation of the McDonald's model, with different menus at different times of day, only the key difference is you can get a buzz going.

And it's quite a different kind of buzz than what you can get from caffeine, so it's not really like it has a whole lot in common with Starbucks' image thus far -- it seems like a move to lock horns with Whole Foods. Think of the giant Whole Foods in Old Town, which also has a wine bar.

So, here's the thing: Starbucks has been around since the '70s, so, to the untrained eye it might seem like an abrupt shift in focus, when, in fact, the company has been around long enough to shake things up. But how can entrepreneurs learn from this? Isn't it detrimental to splinter your market and throw your audience a curveball?

"As a small business owner, you have to be open to disrupt[ing] your strategy from time to time," explains Mimi West, founder of music-teaching service My Dream Teacher. "Their bold move to introduce alcohol in Chicago shops shows their willingness to rethink their strategy -- even when things are going well. It's too easy for small businesses to remain complacent when business is booming. But… it makes sense to make new offerings when your brand is strong."

That said, you should, of course, not risk the house on a wild bet. If it's something that doesn't fit into your strategy or perceived image at all, it'll only damage your rep. If you can afford the risk, though, you might as well go for it. "If they lose sales and customers, the alcoholic drinks can be removed from the menu," said Jamie Yahne of Glitzee Glee. "The only way to find out is to try."

"Make sure your customers will believe your new offering is in your wheelhouse," added Jeff Kear, owner of Planning Pod. "Some Starbucks locations can sell wine and beer because they have an atmosphere where people already casually enjoy beverages, so it isn't a stretch… if you're a tax attorney but also want to offer business advisory services, it isn't too much of a stretch for clients to believe you can be good at that, too… just don't try to also sell office supplies."

Also important to note is that Starbucks isn't rolling this out everywhere. They're testing it in a series of controlled experiments. If you don't have that luxury, focus groups are always a tried-and-true method to give a shot.

There will always be critics, though, and people who think you've "jumped the shark."

"I don't think Starbucks will ever compete for happy hour," said Mike Sprouse, president/CEO of Sprouse marketing. "Booze is the biggest departure from their brand this side of the brand's portrayal in the movie Idiocracy, and frankly might really hurt them."

But, hey, at least they're giving it a try, right? And in a way it makes sense: What better way to sober up than with a cup of coffee? And what better way to come down from a caffeine high than with some alcohol?

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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