The sale of Caribou Coffee to a German firm comes amid fierce competition to sell specialty coffee in the grocery aisle.
Caribou Coffee's acquisition for $340 million by deep-pocketed German investors could be as much about selling coffee by the bag as by the cup.
Joh. A. Benckiser Group will now own two regional coffee companies in the United States. It announced it would buy the other -- Peet's Coffee and Tea in Northern California -- in July.
The two deals give the German investors a network of coffee shops in the Upper Midwest and the West Coast, but also put them in position to vie for a bigger chunk of the specialty bagged-coffee market.
"Clearly they're trying to consolidate the specialty coffee industry a bit more, because up to this point we really hadn't seen much serious competition to Starbucks in this category, outside of Dunkin' Brands," said R.J. Hottovy, a senior restaurant analyst for Morningstar.
A focus on selling packages of coffee to grocery stores and other food service outlets would fit with Benckiser's history and identity, Hottovy said.
The German group already owns a stake in D.E. Master Blenders, a coffee business that was spun off from Sara Lee in June.
Specialty bagged coffee still doesn't sell as well in grocery stores as traditional coffee like Folgers, but that's changing. According to Piper Jaffray, 61 percent of consumers ages 18 to 24 drink specialty coffee, while 39 percent of them drink traditional coffee.
Compare that with consumers over 60, whose drinking habits are roughly the opposite, and the future for sales of specialty coffee is bright.
Companies like Starbucks, Peet's and Caribou have been fighting for position in the bagged-coffee market, and now Peet's and Caribou will be on the same team.
Caribou said Monday that after the deal it will still operate as an independent company with its own brand, management team and strategy. The Brooklyn Center-based company declined to make CEO Michael Tattersfield available for an interview.
When it comes to coffee shops, Caribou's acquisition barely registers on the Starbucks radar, said Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant analyst for WD Partners in Chicago.
"It's probably a pretty typical day at Starbucks," Lombardi said. "Starbucks needs to keep its focus on Starbucks."
But Starbucks is not as dominant in packaged coffee as it is with its ubiquitous coffee shops. The $941 million acquisition of Peet's, announced in July, plus the $340 million purchase of Caribou gives Benckiser two strong brands to market to grocery stores, warehouse clubs like Sam's Club and Costco, and food service companies.
"At the end of the day, that's probably the biggest opportunity that they see there," Hottovy said. "Peet's has had a pretty good packaged coffee business, and having Caribou adds another brand to that distribution channel."
Peet's has about 200 coffeehouses, along with a substantial business in grocery stores and other commercial channels.
A distant No. 2 among coffeehouse chains, Caribou gives its new German owners a raft of high-quality locations across the Upper Midwest and could be a way to expand overseas.
Caribou has 226 of its locations in Minnesota. Illinois and Ohio are its second- and third-largest markets, with 66 and 34 stores in those states.
Lombardi speculated that the coffeehouse chain, which already has about 100 international locations, concentrated mostly in the Middle East, could help Benckiser expand into the global coffee retail market.
Or Benckiser's plans could be more modest. "They might just be trying to understand the American coffee market." he said.
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz