retail news in context, analysis with attitude

SEATTLE -- “Ability is what you're capable of doing,” Raymond Chandler once wrote. “Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”

There was lot of ability, motivation and attitude on display in Seattle over the weekend, as I got to spend a little bit of time in one of my favorite US cities. The air may have been chilly and the rain may have been frequent, but that did not stop me from visiting two intriguing retailing experiments that resulted from their companies looking to define and exploit new opportunities.

On Saturday afternoon, Starbucks had the official opening of its new store in the Capitol Hill district, just east and up the hill on Olive Street from downtown. This store already had drawn attention from the media because it represents a departure for Starbucks - a store that after 4 pm adds beer and wine to its menu, as well as a list of sandwiches, salads and cheese plates designed to give the location a different vibe and broader appeal.

Being opening night, the new Starbucks - at least four or five times the size of its traditional cafes - was packed. There was a jazz band. Despite the rain, people sat outside at tables, under large umbrellas. (This is Seattle No concessions to the weather here.) The decor is cool - wood, steel, and glass. And there seemed like plenty of suits from headquarters in attendance. (Again, being Seattle, even the “suits” didn’t actually wear suits. There was lots of black, and plenty of piercings.)

Starbucks isn’t overreaching. The cafe offers just eight wines, most of them from the Pacific Northwest, and three bottled beers. No draft beer, which is, in my view, a mistake. Most of the food platters also seemed to be pre-wrapped, which takes away from the aura of freshness. (This may reflect a lack of kitchen space or expertise.) But many of the associates seemed highly engaged with the patrons, who were lined up at the coffee counter and were to or three deep at the rear bar.

What makes this different from formats like the 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea format - a stand-alone store that, except for a small “inspired by Starbucks” sign, bears none of the traditional branding accoutrements of the giant coffee chain - is that this time, Starbucks seems to be trying to find out how far it can push its brand equity. This is clearly a test to see if Starbucks can find new ways to bring in evening customers.

There’s no reason to think this won’t work, though there probably are some inherent limitations. Starbucks not only needs to find locations big enough to house such a store, but the real estate also needs to be located in the right kinds of neighborhoods. I can see a couple of dozen of these being opened around the country, in places like Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District; Greenwich, Connecticut; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Santa Monica, California; and in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Starbucks could even create a kind of satellite structure, opening one of these and then surrounding them with its smaller, more traditional stores. Whether the concept is sustainable over the long term will depend on economics and opportunity, but there were no weaknesses that I saw that can’t be remedied.

(To be fair, there have been some published criticism of the concept suggesting that it doesn’t work ... but I don’t see that. The beer and wine doesn’t start flowing until after 4 pm, at which point patrons have a different mindset than during the day.)

The other experiment that I visited was the Seatown Snack Bar, which is chef Tom Douglas’s newest entry in the Seattle restaurant scene.

Douglas, as MNB readers know, is the guy behind Etta’s Seafood...and the Seatown Snack Bar is actually located right next door to Etta’s, across the street from the Pike Place Market, in what used to be a furniture store. The Seatown Snack Bar is actually two different concepts - eat-in and take-out - centered around the notion of convenience and what one local magazine described as the “upscale downmarket ... the movement that’s messing with old assumptions about what belongs in dining rooms and what belongs in diners.”

The take-out side has its own dedicated space, and features a range of rotisserie, pot pie and sandwich offerings. But these aren’t just your run-of-the-mill sandwiches - I tasted a porchetta sandwich made with sweet pepper relish, and it positively melted in my mouth. (Porchetta is pork loin slow cooked on the rotisserie after being seasoned with garlic and fennel.) The sandwich goes for nine bucks, which is more than a Subway sandwich would go for, but a deal for someone looking for a tasty and convenient lunch or dinner; Seatown also has special pricing on happy hour dinners between 5 and 7 pm daily.

Next door, in the sit-down restaurant, it’s all about casual, with tables and a long bar humming with activity. There’s a raw bar for oysters, caviar and shrimp, and about a dozen appetizers and almost as many entrees - all being made right in front of diners in the display kitchen. I had two appetizers - a red butter poached duck egg, served with Walla Walla onion toast, and a dungeness crab, pork and chickpea stew - and they were fabulous. (Pretty much everything that I saw being sent from the kitchen looked great, but I’m only one guy...) There’s a small but strong beer and wine list (I went with a French white on the recommendation of my server, who said that the 2000 Piquepoul les Perles would be perfect with my duck egg, and she was right), and a number of specialty cocktails.

The overall vibe is of an upscale diner - while the prices are higher than they would be at a less distinctive restaurant, I got away for about $32 before tax and tip, which struck me as a bargain under the circumstances. (I was full without being stuffed. Perfect.)

I am intrigued by this whole notion of the “upscale downmarket.” What this really speaks to is the notion of never settling for lowest common denominator food, of always reaching for something new, something challenging...of bringing not just ability and motivation to an enterprise, but also plenty of attitude, which pushes you to the next level.

Lots going on in Seattle, as companies push the envelope on what have been their traditional approaches to the food business. There’s lots to like here...and lots to emulate.

- Kevin Coupe
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