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Archive for Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Home-owned coffee shops adapt as Starbucks settles in

April 3, 2002

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When La Prima Tazza opened its doors in 1990, it had the Lawrence coffeehouse market to itself.

The business at 638 Mass. was the only place serving up specialty coffee drinks in town.

"People tell me there used to be lines out the door, because it was the only place to go (for good coffee)," said Laurel Wimberg, Tazza's manager and an employee there for four years.

Twelve years later, things have changed.

Today, there are a half dozen independent coffeehouses downtown alone. And on Dec. 10, Starbucks Coffee  North America's largest corporate-owned coffee chain  opened across the street at 647 Mass., formerly home of a Gap clothing store.

Does that mean there's trouble brewing in Lawrence's coffeehouse marketplace?

Owners and managers of locally owned coffeehouses appear unfazed by the entrance of Starbucks to the market, feeling they're well equipped to hang on to the loyal following each has established.

Their attitude seems to be that there's room for many coffee purveyors in Lawrence, including the big daddy of the industry, Starbucks.

Wimberg aptly summed up the perspective of folks in the coffeehouse business.

"I really see (each store) as having their own niche. They have their own regulars," she said.

In other words, the market is fragmented  people go to different coffeehouses for different reasons.

For whatever reason, once these customers are satisfied, they seem to stick to their favorite places.

While not begrudging Starbucks, owners and managers of local coffeehouses are hoping to keep it that way.

Starbucks' view

How does Starbucks feel about all this?

"We represent one choice in the community," said Montey Dunn, the company's regional marketing specialist for the Lawrence area.

"This choice will not suit everyone, and different coffee shops serve different needs. The customer is really the one who benefits the most with more choices available to them."

Things seem to be going well at the new store.

"So far we have received some great feedback about our presence in Lawrence, and we have really enjoyed becoming a part of the community," Dunn said.

Starbucks has about 3,000 retail locations in the United States and more than 300 international retail locations.

Charles Whitman, for one, isn't too leery of Starbucks coming to town. He and Russell Livingston are co-owners of the Bourgeois Pig, 6 E. Ninth St., now in its seventh year of business.

"Starbucks is a wonderful operation, and they have wonderful product. But they're not coming into an unsophisticated town. The folks who were responsible for really changing the public's palate were the people who started Prima Tazza," Whitman said.

"Starbucks is not an issue with us. They're an extremely well-run company. But this is a mature coffee market, and people are very critical."

Coffee and cocktails

The Bourgeois Pig will be able to hold its own against the competition because it has a unique business model: that of the classic Viennese cafe.

The coffeehouse, open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, offers not just coffee and pastries but also a full bar.

"People can do both elegant coffee and sophisticated cocktails," Whitman said.

In addition, the Bourgeois Pig is a smoking establishment  customers are welcome to light up a pipe, cigar or cigarette.

Meanwhile, Henry's, 11 E. Eighth St., has altered its business model to widen its appeal in the marketplace.

In May 2001, the three-year-old Henry's opened up a full bar in the vacant area above the coffeehouse.

"The owner (Dave Boulter of Topeka) has wanted to open a new bar for a while. He's always been kind of creative, business-wise," said Adam Robinson, manager.

"It's been going wonderfully, picking up faster and faster every week. People who have been loyal coffee customers are now loyal bar patrons upstairs."

A shake-up in the downtown coffeehouse scene took place in October 2001, when Mark Zwahl, owner of the 2-year-old Z's Divine Espresso, 1800 E. 23rd St., bought Java Dive, 10 E. Ninth St. Zwahl revamped the coffee shop and, in March, renamed it Z's Espresso Downtown.

Z's roasts its own coffee beans for both shops. Most of his coffees are also organic and shade grown, qualities that are important to some customers.

"I'm now roasting over 300 pounds of coffee a week. Yesterday we did 350 pounds," he said.

The Z's coffee shop on 23rd Street offers the only drive-through for specialty coffee drinks in town.

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