- BigFoot Java News
Competition Grows for Espresso To Go
By Jake Batsell
Seattle Times business reporter
December 12, 2002
The laid-back, relaxing ambience of the coffeehouse helped
convert more than half of Americans into espresso drinkers
during the 1990s. But what about the customer who doesn't
have time to linger?
Cozy as they may be, sit-down espresso cafes often aren't
an option for the on-the-go commuter or the harried parent
with a car full of kids. In the coffee-laden Northwest, such
time-pressed customers get their java fix by pulling up to
the nearest drive-thru.
Drive-thrus, however, are less common beyond the Northwest.
One industry consultant says there may be fewer than 100 in
California, and they're even scarcer in other parts of the
country. To fill that void, coffee retailers are scrambling
for a piece of the industry's next frontier.
race is just kind of getting started," said Steve Schickler,
president of Seattle Coffee, parent company of Seattle's Best
Coffee and Torrefazione Italia.
Seattle's Best has developed a double-window drive-thru it plans
to begin testing early next year, and cross-town rival Starbucks
recently announced plans to add more drive-thrus. Several regional
chains around the country also are trying to expand the concept
Even in a coffee Mecca like the Puget Sound region, industry players
say there is room for more drive-thrus, particularly for those
with a spiffier feel than the typical roadside coffee stand. BigFoot
Java® , a Pacific-based chain of six 24-hour drive-thrus in
south King and Pierce counties, beckons customers with a mountain-cabin
look the company describes as "neo-Northwest."
BigFoot has its own blend of coffee and stresses quick service,
equipping its new drive-thrus with dual sliding doors so baristas
can walk orders out to customers. The company plans to add six
locations next year and is building a new headquarters and training
center in Kent to train franchisees.
"It's not going to put anyone out of business, but it's going
to raise the level of quality people expect from a drive-thru,"
said David Morris, part owner of BigFoot.
Bruce Milletto, president of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup in Eugene,
Ore., said the drive-thru format also is gaining momentum among
mom-and-pop sellers. This year, Milletto's consulting group has
sold about 1,000 copies of a guide it publishes on how to open
a drive-thru. It sold about 500 last year.
Industry groups don't know exactly how many drive-thrus exist.
The topic is popular at trade shows, Milletto said, because drive-thrus
offer entrepreneurs the chance to enter the specialty coffee industry
at a relatively low cost.
"It's very rare that you can get into a complete business
for under $150,000 and still have a chance to be successful,"
The industry's biggest players also are pushing ahead with the
drive-thru concept. Starbucks has 210 among its 4,700-plus stores
in North America, and Chief Executive Orin Smith told analysts
in October that they will make up a much larger proportion of
the company's new stores. Starbucks is testing a drive-through-only
format in several markets.
Yes, this is the same chain that rose to prominence by romanticizing
the coffeehouse as a "third place" where customers can
relax away from home and work. Smith said Starbucks will continue
to tout the traditional coffeehouse experience but wants to do
more to appeal to those who don't have time to stop in.
Smith gave the example of a mother running errands with her two
"She just passes us by," he said. "Now, she's got
Seattle's Best plans to unveil its first drive-thru early next
year, probably in the Puget Sound region. Its model will have
a premium feel and likely will be in the parking lot of a major
retailer, Schickler said.
Drive-thrus are less common outside the Northwest because customers
first needed to get used to espresso before demanding it in a
more convenient format, Milletto said.
"First, you have to go through the learning process of, 'What
is specialty coffee?'" Milletto said. "You're not going
to stop at a drive-thru when you're not sure what the product's
With Americans commuting longer distances than ever, it's almost
inevitable that demand will rise for drive-thrus, said Michael
Marsden, a professor of English and cultural studies at Eastern
Kentucky University who has researched the role of the automobile
in American life.
"People want their fix," Marsden said. "If they
can get it in their car, why not? Our car is our outer skin. It
is the way we see the world, and we don't want to get out of it."
Drive-thru banks and pharmacies have been around for years, and
Marsden said he's even heard of funeral parlors with drive-thru
viewings and a drive-thru brothel in Germany.
"I think it's inevitable that once people get used to a certain
activity, if you make it more convenient for them, they're obviously
going to choose it," Marsden said.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company