Starbucks steps up search for Latin America's El Dorado

  • Article by: ANGEL GONZALEZ , Seattle Times
  • Updated: February 17, 2014 - 8:48 PM

Starbucks, which buys most of its beans from the coffee-rich nations, hopes the region will be fertile ground for new customers.

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Cafe del Barista, in downtown San Jose, exemplifies a new effort by Costa Rican cafes struggling to fend off Starbucks.

Photo: Angel Gonzalez • Seattle Times,

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ESCAZU, COSTA RICA

Starbucks Corp. has long bought some of its best beans a few dozen miles from this ritzy suburb of Costa Rica’s capital.

Now it is betting that Costa Rica and other coffee-rich Latin American nations will be a source not only of fine Arabica, but also of affluent customers eager to trade their traditional chorreado drip coffee for what Starbucks here calls an alto latte.

Some are eager to embrace it.

“It’s a coffee shop with a lot of variety. We have nothing like that in Costa Rica,” said Armando Madrigal, 26, a pharmaceutical sales representative drinking an iced coffee at Starbucks’ flagship Costa Rican store, at the fancy Avenida Escazu shopping center.

His companion, Melanie Ascanio, was less impressed. It’s too expensive, the 20-year-old university student said. Moreover, the flavored drinks don’t highlight the storied quality of Costa Rican coffee, she added.

“It’s all about fashion,” Ascanio said of Starbucks. “It’s all about the name on the cup.”

The contrasting opinions at this one table underscore the challenges — and opportunities — Starbucks faces in Latin America, the region where it buys most of its beans.

Coffee has deep roots in Latin America, of course. Yet in many countries that grow it, including Costa Rica and Colombia, coffee is mostly brewed at home, and many balk at paying high prices to buy it elsewhere.

Starbucks nonetheless hopes the region’s booming middle class, heavily influenced by the United States, will heed the siren’s call.

One obstacle is the time-honored Costa Rican chorreado, which involves pouring hot water into a coffee-filled cloth bag hanging from a wooden stand and watching the brown liquid slowly trickle into a cup.

Another hurdle comes from small-time but savvy local operators such as Manuel Dinarte, a national barista champion who runs a truly homegrown operation: He built the furniture in his coffee shop and roasts his own coffee.

“How is it possible that they’re selling us our own coffee at five times the price?” asked Dinarte. He calls Starbucks’ appeal here a sign that “too many people have gone to Miami,” a popular tourist destination for Costa Rican travelers.

Starbucks’ Latin American retail push, well into its second decade, is picking up speed with the expected opening of the company’s first store in Colombia this summer, a high-profile move in a country from which it has been buying coffee for decades.

International markets have more upside than Starbucks’ mature U.S. core, and even though most Latin markets are small in comparison with India or China, establishing a strong presence in the coffee-rich region has high symbolic value for the company.

Cliff Burrows, the Starbucks executive who oversees retail operations in the Western Hemisphere, said the Seattle-based company is helping boost the sophistication of Latin American customers by bringing them coffee not only from their countries, but from hitherto exotic locales such as Kenya, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Starbucks also connects wired young people with the global community they already know online or through stints in Europe and the United States.

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