Competition Brews Over Decaf

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Caribou Coffee recently tried to lure Starbucks decaf customers to their coffee houses with free coffee. The move came after Starbucks announced it would brew decaf in the afternoons only if customers requested it. Sea Stachura from Minnesota Public Radio's reports.


Starbucks recently announced it will stop brewing decaf coffee in the afternoon unless a customer specifically asked for it. What is decaf coffee? Anyway, that got rival Caribou Coffee leaping in to fill those empty cups. They offered free decaf to despondent drinkers. Did it work? Minnesota Public Radio's Sea Stachura decided to find out.

SEA STACHURA: If a caffeinated coffee drinker sounds like this:

(Soundbite of "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov)

STACHURA: Does a decaf drinker sound like this?

(Soundbite of J.S. Bach's "Air on the G String" orchestration by August Wilhelmj)

STACHURA: It's hard to say. They don't noticeably talk more slowly, at least not at this Minneapolis Caribou Coffee. Do you happen to ever drink decaf?

Unidentified Man: Actually, I don't.

Unidentified Man #2: Well, this is half decaf.

Unidentified Woman: See now, I don't drink coffee, so (laughing)...

STACHURA: Decaf makes up only 10 percent of all drip coffee sales. Rick Reinhardt is the president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He says decaf drinkers are a growing market.

MR. RICK REINHARDT (President, Specialty Coffee Association of America): There is pretty clear indication that aging population turns towards decaf to a larger degree. The other reason they're sort of key is that decaf coffee drinker is the one coffee drinker that you can be absolutely certain is drinking coffee because they like the taste of coffee.

STACHURA: Caribou says their decaf tastes better than Starbuck's decaf, and that's why they wanted people to try it for free. Caribou spokesman Alfredo Martel says they had a 10 percent increase in volume that day.

Mr. ALFREDO MARTEL (Caribou Spokesman): Decaf alone is not the story for us. Decaf is just one of the points that we're trying to make. We believe that a superior product and a great atmosphere with a great, great commitment to customer service pays out in the long run.

STACHURA: Starbucks spokeswoman Bridget Baker wouldn't comment on tape, but she says Caribou probably gave the coffee away to avoid pouring it down the drain. Increased market share and cost savings are critical right now. Starbuck's revenue is down 7 percent from last year. Caribou's was down just under 2 percent. These numbers make a coffee company jittery.

(Soundbite of "Flight of the Bumblebee")

So does the increased competition from companies like Dunkin Donuts and McDonald's McCafe. Shelly Goodman and her friends are at a deserted food court in St. Paul. They're drinking McCafes cocoas.

Ms. SHELLY GOODMAN: I got a large for $2.06, and at Caribou it's over $3.

STACHURA: Goodman says she's usually a Caribou coffee drinker, but times are tough. She doesn't want to pay for atmosphere.

Ms. GOODMAN: You know what? It's not so much about the experience where I'm at. It's about spending time with my friends, and saving money while drinking it.

STACHURA: Goodman did take advantage of Caribou's free decaf offer, but she says she only did it because it was free. For NPR News, I'm Sea Stachura.

(Soundbite of "Flight of the Bumblebee")

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