Coffee comes of age with Starbucks now in Carson City

Question of the day: Why did it take until the summer of 2000 for Starbucks Coffee to establish a beachhead in Carson City?

Through the 1990s, Starbucks proliferated from a local coffee shop almost unknown beyond Seattle to an international presence found at nearly every corner of the planet.

Starbucks has some 3,000 coffee shops around the world, a number that has quadrupled in just four years.

Shanghai and Beijing have Starbucks in a country long closed to the outside world. Japan and the United Kingdom each have more than 100 Starbucks shops.

Even the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has a Starbucks.

But to this day, you still can't buy a Frappuccino in Carson City. Starbucks isn't expected to open in the SuperKmart center for another two months.

The new millennium marks also a new age for drive-thru coffee in Carson City. Back in the 20th century, Espresso to Go offered the only dedicated, stand-alone drive-thru coffee service.

Then in May along came Barista Brothers Coffee on North Carson Street. Kupps Coffee outside the Carson Mall is set to open in mid-July and Starbucks should follow in late August.

"It seems like coffee has decided to hit Carson City," said Steve Browne, who is known for serving espresso martinis at his Carson Cigar Company cigar bar in the Mainstreet Atrium.

"The reason it took so long for Starbucks to come here," theorized Browne, outgoing president of the Carson City Area Chamber of Commerce, "is that Starbucks is a yuppie franchise. Starbucks has not looked at Northern Nevada as yuppie territory."

Starbucks may not say that, but the world's most popular coffee purveyor has only four Nevada stores outside Clark County (all in the Truckee Meadows) and one is at a most favored location for Starbucks: the airport.

Larry Osborne remembers the days not so long ago when the idea of a coffee house in Carson City was almost as foreign as snow in Las Vegas. Capital Blends and City Cafe Bakery are coffee establishments that pre-date Java Joe's, but Java Joe's gave Carson City the first coffee house that the cast of "Friends" might sample.

"I remember when Java Joe's first opened there was a concern, 'Are we ready for a local coffee house?'" said Osborne, the chamber's executive vice president.

John Davis opened his first Java Joe's downtown in October 1994 on a whim and a second whim led to another Java Joe's on the south end in December 1996.

"It was the right spot and the right time," Davis said. "I saw a deli for sale. I didn't see any coffee shops. As it turned out, it was an excellent location."

Carson City's newcomers who took the city's population from 40,000 to 50,000 in the past decade brought the coffee culture with them.

"The growing part of the population has been transplants and a lot of them are from California," Osborne said. "This is now an area where people have brought their tastes with them."

Davis added: "A percentage of the influx of Californians and West Coasters is looking for something a little better than a quick stop for coffee."

Specialty coffee in just the past five years or so has become a bona-fide phenomenon. Kupps Coffee owner Jim West describes it as America adopting the more sophisticated tastes of Europe.

"This is the maturation of the American palate," West said.

As Starbucks opened more than 2,000 stores during the past four years, the company quietly observed Carson City, playing a protracted waiting game until this year.

"We were just wanting to wait for the right project," said Marcelline Mahern, Starbuck's development manager for Northern Nevada and parts of Northern California.

Initially, Starbucks reportedly had interest in the closed-down Golden Spike Casino building that now is emerging as the Washington Street Station. That faded away as Starbucks latched onto the Kmart shopping center about three years ago.

But Starbucks' arrival hit a roadblock as development of the perfect site was hit with a two-year delay as the property was sold. Starbucks wanted to be in the Kmart center and was willing to wait through delays.

"What we have identified for Carson City is we want to be on the north end of town and on Highway 395," Mahern said. "We want to serve residents, commuters and tourists. It has developed into a nice drive-through opportunity."

Starbucks will have a store serving the full array of beverages as well as offering merchandise and a bean presentation. Hours will likely be from about 5:30 or 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Starbucks also wants to open a store at the south end of Carson City but has yet to find the ideal location, Mahern said.

Barista Brothers, Java Joe's and the yet-to-open Kupps Coffee don't dread the arrival of the coffee giant. In fact, West at Kupps wallows in the Starbucks shadow.

"We came here because we knew they were coming," said West, who owns two restaurants in Eugene, Ore., where he also gets his coffee supply. "If you read my business plan, it says follow Starbucks. They helped expedite the maturation of the palate. They're a big-time education source."

Barista Brothers thrives on Reno-bound traffic from 7 to 10 a.m.

"I don't feel threatened by Starbucks," said Jennifer Martin, manager a Barista Brothers, "because I know we're good. We have great coffee, great customer service and we're fast."

Davis at Java Joe's weighs the desire to remain a small town with the realities of Carson City needing a larger tax base to thrive. He reasons as the pie gets bigger, the town will be able to support competition in the coffee house realm.

"I don't look at Starbucks as so much a threat," Davis said. "They're at the opposite end of town. We have a niche market in the capital center. We have a lot of foot traffic."

Java Joe's and Kupps also don't bank entirely on coffee.

Java Joe's has evolved into a "health-food type" place with soy milk, chai and sandwiches. Davis now is testing organic vegetables. At a coffee shop?

"A lot of people don't realize we do a huge lunch business," Davis said. "You've got to do something else."

Knowing coffee is predominantly a breakfast money-maker, West found a way to make the cup a lunch container, too. Sure, there's soup but the cup can also be a vessel for a sandwich - the wrap in a cup, as West calls it.

"I'm in the fast-food business," West admits. "Drive around around 11 and 1 and show me me a drive-thru that doesn't have five or 10 cars stacked. Our concept isn't so much coffee. We feed people in their cars."


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