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Originally published July 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 16, 2009 at 8:37 AM

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Starbucks tests new names for stores

Next week, the first of at least three remodeled Seattle-area Starbucks stores will bear the name of its neighborhood rather than the 16,000-store chain to which it belongs.

Seattle Times business reporter

When is a Starbucks not a Starbucks? When it's a 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.

The ubiquitous coffee-shop giant is dropping the household name from its 15th Avenue East store on Capitol Hill, a shop that was slated to close at one point last year but is being remodeled in Starbucks' new rustic, eco-friendly style.

It will open next week, the first of at least three remodeled Seattle-area stores that will bear the names of their neighborhoods rather than the 16,000-store chain to which they belong.

Names and locations for the other two shops have not been finalized. If the pilot goes well in Seattle, it could move to other markets.

The new names are meant to give the stores "a community personality," said Tim Pfeiffer, senior vice president of global design. Starbucks' logo will be absent, with bags of the company's coffee and other products rebranded with the 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea name.

In the spirit of a traditional coffeehouse, it will serve wine and beer, host live music and poetry readings and sell espresso from a manual machine rather than the automated type found in most Starbucks stores.

The changes come at a time when retailers, including Starbucks, are suffering from slower foot traffic and lower profits.

Those who can capture a sense of community and offer consumers a compelling experience will win in the long run, said Michelle Barry, senior vice president of the market-research firm Hartman Group in Bellevue.

"It's not about nostalgia per se, but more about telling a story and reappropriating some things from the past and re-imagining them in a new environment," she said.

Some local coffee-shop owners say Starbucks is appropriating their environments.

Sebastian Simsch, co-owner of Seattle Coffee Works near Pike Place Market, became frustrated last year after large groups of Starbucks employees kept crowding into his 300-square-foot store to look around.

"I thought it was funny," he said. "We're this little store, and I thought Starbucks didn't need to learn from me."

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During the third group's visit, Simsch let them know what he thought.

"I said, 'If you want to buy something that's great, but just to look, that's not cool,' " he recounted. "I called the PR department and said, 'Never again.' "

They did not come back, even after he moved into a much larger store next door.

Victrola Coffee Roasters saw the Starbucks people a lot more often.

"They spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, 'Observation,' " said Victrola owner Dan Ollis.

He thinks it's interesting that they spent all that time in his shop, which serves wine and beer, then applied for a liquor license to sell wine and beer at 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.

He's also intrigued by the name change, but said it will mean little if the new store looks like Starbucks' newly remodeled stores near Pike Place Market and in University Village.

Like those stores, the 15th Avenue location was designed using local talent and materials, including table tops from a landscaper's stone yard and discarded theater seats from a local antiques dealer.

"This one is definitely a little neighborhood coffee shop," Pfeiffer said.

Ollis has his doubts.

"Starbucks is Starbucks, and we're different from them," he said.

Then his competitive streak kicked in. "I wonder if they will want to participate in a Victrola Barista Smackdown?"

Pfeiffer didn't flinch at the idea. "We should set that up," he said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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