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Why Can’t Starbucks Figure Out Food?

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The coffee company just announced a partnership with Austin-based Snap Kitchen

Snap Kitchen/Facebook

This week, Starbucks locations in Houston began selling and serving meals from Snap Kitchen, an Austin, Texas-based mini-chain that makes hearty meals focused on wellness. Options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — like turkey chili, chicken butternut macaroni, and grass-fed beef lasagna — are packaged in plastic bowls ready to reheat and eat.

Since April, five Starbucks stores in Houston have been selling the meals, according to a spokesperson. The company told employees in a letter on Monday that it planned to expand the partnership into another market soon, Bloomberg reported. Snap Kitchen has 53 locations in five U.S. cities: Austin, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

“The test of Snap Kitchens — a company we admire — is off to an amazing start in Houston and will soon expand,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson told employees in the letter. “I’m also impressed with the progress we are making to elevate food at Starbucks.”

Johnson’s confidence in his company’s push to “elevate food” is surprising for several reasons. First, just about a month ago, the Seattle-based coffee brand unveiled Mercato, a new grab-and-go-style lunch menu, in Chicago. In the announcement heralding the new sandwiches and salads, which are available in 100 Chicago-area locations, Starbucks said it planned to expand Mercato nationwide.

Whether or not Starbucks plans to serve both Snap Kitchen’s menu and its own Mercato line across the country is unclear. (A Starbucks spokesperson says only that the Snap Kitchen trial and Mercato menu are “separate.”)

This isn’t the first time the country’s most popular coffee company has tried to introduce savory menu items, though earlier attempts failed to attract consumers and turn a profit. According to earnings reports, 20 percent of Starbucks’ sales come from food. But with the exception of its grab-and-go line of prepared cold sandwiches and bistro boxes, the coffee giant hasn’t figured out how to consistently serve a menu of savory lunch (or dinner) food options.

Some say this could be due to the quality of lunch items Starbucks has offered over the years. Because Starbucks stores don’t have full kitchens, sandwiches, salads, and tapas have either been shipped frozen and microwaved to order or delivered to each location daily... and (with the exception of salads) reheated to order. If Starbucks really wanted to compete with Panera, it might need to consider installing actual kitchens and hiring cooks rather than training baristas on the delicate craft of convection oven reheating. But would such an enormous investment be worth it when Starbucks’ main profit center is coffee?

Here, now, a review of Starbucks’ food offerings over the years:

2004: Starbucks debuts yogurt and granola parfaits along with fruit salads. These items have since gone through several changes, but are still served in all stores.

2010: In an attempt to capture the dinner crowd, the coffee company begins testing what comes to be known as “Starbucks Evenings,” a menu of beer, wine, and tapas. By 2014 this menu had rolled out to 400 locations across the country. It clearly didn’t catch on the way the company would have liked; this past January Starbucks canned evenings and the wine and beer that went along with it.

2011: Starbucks introduces bistro boxes, small grab-and-go snacks, like a cheese and fruit plate, packed in plastic trays that it sells in a cold case next to pre-packed cold sandwiches, juices, and milk. These offerings have gone through several changes but are still available at most locations.

2011: Starbucks buys Evolution Fresh, a fresh juice company founded in Southern California. The coffee company announces it will offer Evolution’s juices in its stores, and makes plans to open Evolution Fresh locations. The first Evolution Fresh juice bar opens in Washington in 2012 serving juices and a menu of vegetarian and vegan breakfast and lunch options. Eventually, a total of five locations open, but by the beginning of 2017 Starbucks closes each one, announcing it will keep selling Evolution juices in its coffee shops. Evolution Fresh’s salad offerings are no longer available.

2012: Starbucks buys SF-based bakery chain La Boulange for $100 million. The move is widely proclaimed as Starbucks’ serious foray into owning the salad and sandwich lunch business. The coffee company sets its sights on edging out competition from groups like Panera and Pret a Manger. But two years in customers complain about the new offerings, and in 2015 the company pulls back on its investment. It closes all 23 freestanding La Boulange locations and makes no plans to open new ones. The coffee chain’s baked goods line, meanwhile, suffers a sort of identity crisis after the merger.

2016: Starbucks tests brunch items, including waffles, quiche, and baked french toast at some locations.

2017: A month after introducing avocado toast, Starbucks introduces Mercato, a new menu of prepared sandwiches and salads, to 100 Chicago-area locations. That same month, Snap Kitchen begins selling bowls of savory meals, ready to reheat, at five Starbucks cafes in Houston.

All Starbucks Coverage [E]