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Brewing up a winning formula: Starbucks hits it big in Japan

by David Chester

I admit it: I had a breakdown. It probably happened sometime after Starbucks Store No. 100 opened in the cavernous Tameike-Sanno subway station. My first reaction was: What, another one? How many more of these places, full of smiling, happy crowds, nursing “bold expressions” and munching on brownies or biscotti, are there?

Starbucks’ Tameike-Sanno branch, the company’s 100th store in Japan

At last count, there are 182 in the Tokyo area, with the number set to increase to well over 200 by the time the new century arrives.

So, like millions of others, I went, I drank, I succumbed.

Yet Starbucks’ success has not always seemed so assured. Just four years ago, Howard Schultz (once Starbucks’ CEO, now its chief global strategist) was sweating bullets about Starbucks’ Japan debut in Ginza. What if they didn’t come? What if they didn’t like it?

But they came in droves and they loved it.

Based on the success of Starbucks in Japan, the “Asian invasion” has continued, with store openings in Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. The goal at present is 500 stores in the Pacific Rim by 2003.

For many, here and abroad, Starbucks (given a top rating by consumers in this year’s Nikkei Restaurant trade magazine) is considered part of one’s lifestyle. This is, in fact, the desired effect, according to Kazuko Nakada, Starbucks’ director of communications and public affairs in Japan.

“We like to think there is a ‘third place’ between the home and the office where people can relax, listen to music, enjoy a coffee and stay as long as they like,” Nakada says.

The Starbucks experience is even moving into the home via a growing variety of mugs, beans, coasters and brewers.

Then there’s the literature — a wide variety of pamphlets about coffee and “the Starbucks story.”

Readers will discover that Starbucks was the first to introduce “variety coffees” (which use espresso as a base), and in between sips of a Caramel Macchiato or a Panama Florentina, they can also reflect on the fact that Starbucks uses only the highest grade arabica beans in its coffee.

Of course teas, seasonal drinks and a wide range of edibles (prepared especially for Starbucks) are also available, but, as Nakada points out, they are “focused on creating a coffee culture.”

Working hard to make this “coffee culture” a success are the young, smiling professionals behind the counter (who shout out your orders as if they were part of a relay race). They receive intense training and come away with a thorough understanding of brewing, beans and the Starbucks philosophy: “One cup at a time, one customer at a time.”

Many would argue that there are too many Starbucks and as a result, other places are being put out of business. A look around town will show, however, that the opposite is true: Competition has sprung up everywhere (Seattle’s Best Coffee, Tully’s), even to the point of blatant imitation. (A lawsuit has recently concluded in Starbucks’ favor over the use of a similar logo by Doutor’s high-end “Excelsior” shops.)

Sometimes it is hard to imagine what all the fuss is about a cup of coffee. After all, you grind some beans (or let Starbucks do it for you), pour hot water over them and drink the result. But how each of those steps is carried out determines whether a customer will make a return visit.

It is beyond the scope of this article to list all the Starbucks branches and business hours, but let’s face it: Before you know it, one will be in your neighborhood, and you might find yourself strolling in, just to take a peek, like I did. A few minutes later, with a Mocha Frappucino in one hand and an iced cinnamon roll in the other, whatever else was on your agenda will just have to wait.