What McDonald's did with french fries and cheeseburgers, it is hoping to do with foaming, flavored espresso drinks.

Beginning Monday, McDonald's will roll out its McCafé line of $2.29 small lattes and $3.29 large mochas at 160 restaurants across the metro area.

The Twin Cities is the first market in the Upper Midwest to get the new coffees, although they have previously been tested in a few smaller cities and across Michigan.

McDonald's unveiled the McCafé line at Golden Valley's Winnetka Avenue location with an a capella quintet -- dressed in McDonald's uniforms -- and a tasting with local celebrities such as Minnesota Wild player Mark Parrish, a self-described coffee enthusiast. His verdict: The McCafé brew "puts my wife's coffee to shame."

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based company, whose sales have remained strong despite economic doldrums, is calling the McCafé launch its biggest move since the introduction of its breakfast menu in 1977.

Still, coaxing people to pay more for a coffee than what an Egg McMuffin meal costs could be a tough sell. And the price differences -- roughly 65 cents a drink compared with Starbucks -- might not be enough to make up for the difference in experience of overstuffed couches vs. plastic booths. The drinks are made automatically by machine.

"Our consumers are looking for a different kind of experience," said Chris Eilers, president of Minneapolis-based Dunn Bros. Coffee. "Not one that's based on superautomatic machines to get the product out as fast as you can."

The launch comes as coffee chains across the country are struggling as consumers, battered by high gas and food prices, pare back on frills and nonessentials. Starbucks this year reinstated founder Howard Schultz as chairman and CEO to reenergize the chain after same-store sales in its U.S. coffee shops started to slip.

McDonald's dipped its toes into the coffee market when it introduced the Premium Roast line of drinks a few years ago. McDonald's Iced Coffee was added to the mix last summer.

"It has been a natural evolution for us," Midwest regional vice president for operations Shelly Hansen said of the McCafé line.

Brewing up growth

A decade ago, espresso drinks were for hard-core coffee aficionados. In recent years, specialty coffee drinks have continued to rise in popularity, finding their way into the hands of city slickers, soccer moms and even middle-school girls at the mall. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the industry ran up sales of $12.3 billion in 2006, up from $7.5 billion in 1999.

Eilers said the Twin Cities is a unique market for specialty coffees, with Dunn Bros. and Caribou based here.

"There aren't really any other markets that have that level of coffee competition on a per-capita basis," he said. He predicted that the McCafé line will have the most success with convenience-oriented customers.

David Tarantino, senior research analyst for Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird and Co., said that, despite coffee's growth, there's room for more. "The marketing, the increased availability, will educate more consumers about the category and will increase the overall consumption," he said.

George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, questioned the line's name. The "Mc" prefix has grown beyond McDonald's products in recent years, usually describing things mass produced with a cookie-cutter mentality, such as "McMansions."

McCafé sounds like "it's just another product in a long line of additions," he said.

Tim Baylor, owner of the Golden Valley location where McDonald's held the launch, said people will think positively of the "Mc" brand, associating it with being a fast-food industry leader. Baylor said the speed of service and convenient options, such as the drive-through, will help the product succeed.

Roberta Marx, of Golden Valley, got her first taste of mocha as she mingled with the orange-hat-clad celebrities at the launch party. Marx, who frequently meets friends for coffee at McDonald's, said she would drink it again. "It tastes like hot chocolate," she said.

Emma L. Carew • 612-673-7405