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Gourmet on Every Corner

NEW YORK -- More and more businesses looking for some added value for their customers are turning to java, and not just your standard cup, either, reports the Assocated Press. Latte lovers can get their fix in laundromats, movie theaters, baseball stadiums and fitness centers. And businesses that have long served coffee -- such as convenience stores -- are finding they no longer can get away with any old drip as consumers accustomed to Starbucks demand the same quality anywhere they buy coffee.

"If your taste has been educated to really want an espresso or a mocha, a regular cup of joe from the institutional pot that has been sitting there all day just isn't good enough anymore," said Beau Weston, a sociology professor who teaches a class on café life at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Weston credits Starbucks for getting Americans used to a higher-quality coffee brew. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group, gourmet coffee is now more than a $9 billion industry in the United States, up from $7.5 billion in 1999.

No wonder, then, that fancy coffee is showing up in unexpected places.

Take the Wild Bean Cafe, a new addition to BP gas stations across the country. There, customers can get pastries baked on site and gourmet coffee from urns refilled with fresh brews throughout the day.

"When was the last time you were in a gas station and were able to enjoy a Kenya AA?" said BP spokesman Scott Dean. "We're finding that customers really do want a good quality cup of coffee."

Rick Abramson, president of Sportservice Inc., a leading provider of concessions at sports stadiums and arenas, remembers the way coffee was served at ballparks in his youth: a cup of hot water and a packet of instant granules. No more.

Now about 90 percent of the sporting facilities Sportservice serves have some sort of high-end coffee offering, from Starbucks or local gourmet brews at concession stands to espresso drinks in the stadium clubs. Younger fans like his children, ages 16 and 20, demand fancy hot drinks in the fall and frozen ones in the summer.

"My kids are used to that, so when they went to the ballpark, they would think I wasn't doing my job if there wasn't a place where they could get a mocha or a frappe," Abramson said.

A good cup of coffee can bring customers into a business -- and keep them around at least for as long as it takes to drink it, said Richard Wyckoff, who oversees refreshment services for Aramark Corp., a top foodservice provider based in Philadelphia.

A booming part of Aramark's business is at car dealerships, which are requesting Starbucks self-service machines that can grind and brew a fresh cup of coffee for potential car buyers in less than a minute.

The idea is to keep customers happy -- and browsing.

"If you look at trends in the coffee business and the growth of gourmet coffee, primarily due to the Starbucks chain, the consumer is much more aware and appreciates much more the value of a good cup of coffee," Wyckoff said.

The National Coffee Association's 2004 National Coffee Drinking Trends report found that of consumers who said they had purchased coffee in the past week, 11 percent said they bought it at a convenience store, 18 percent at work and 7 percent at a mass merchandiser. The purchase information is a new addition to the annual report.

Consumers who start drinking espresso at the ballpark may eventually upgrade to a regular Starbucks fix, said Sharon Zackfia, an industry analyst with William Blair & Co. she said.

"The emergence of a more refined coffee culture probably helps Starbucks in the longer term," Zackfia said. "They still have the premium brand."

Starbucks reported revenue of $5.29 billion for fiscal 2004, up from $1.68 billion in 1999. That total includes a growing line of non-coffee beverages, food and other merchandise as well as revenues from a rapidly growing number of non-U.S. outlets.

Paul Frischer, who owns the Music Recyclery chain, says he likes Starbucks as much as the next person, but there's also room for independent brews. Frischer's roots are in the coffee business; he started with a Chicago cafe but soon found the CDs he was selling offered a better return.

That was almost 15 years ago, before coffee-roasting technology got less expensive and Starbucks raised the expectations of coffee drinkers, Frischer said. Now his Fire Fresh blend attracts customers who might not otherwise come into the store and gives those who do another reason to stick around and buy.

Coffee also can give some cachet to businesses that might otherwise be seen as blah, said Marion Illies, who opened the EZ New Web Laundromat & Cafe a few months ago in Culver City, Calif. Customers there can sip frappuccinos, sit on designer furniture and surf the Web while their clothes are cleaned and fluffed.

"Laundromats used to be the centers of communities ... and it totally changed, they became nasty," Illies said. "I thought, why not change laundromats into what they used to be by adding a coffee shop?"

Weston, the café life professor, wonders how long the ubiquitous coffee trend can last. There are some places, like bookstores and libraries, where fancy coffee is logical and others, like gas stations, where it is not, he said.

"We're now at the height of the fad, so everyplace is going to try it, and most of them will wash out," Weston said.

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