As senior vice president of U.S. operations for Starbucks Coffee, Clarice Turner already helps direct a system of thousands of coffeehouses, but her additional challenge is to steer the massive chain toward strengthening the later daypart with the Starbucks Evenings program.

For the past three-and-a-half years, Turner has developed and expanded Starbucks Evenings, which includes small plates, desserts, beer and wine. The company is testing the program in Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington Dulles International Airport and Portland, Ore.

As the executive sponsor of the daypart test, her job is to evaluate how well Starbucks Evenings creates the relaxed environment customers have said they wanted after work at the brand’s coffeehouses. The program presents its own unique challenges for operations and marketing, she said, but “it’s classic Starbucks in terms of innovation.”

That topic will drive Turner’s keynote speech at the spring meeting of the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group, taking place May 15–17 in Chicago. The study group meets twice a year to connect industry marketers for sharing best practices, and this year's spring meeting will explore the theme, “Always Open: Connect Everywhere, Every Way, Every Day.”

“Innovation is critical to keeping ahead of the game,” Turner said. “Giving customers the unexpected is what turns an initiative into something inspirational and has a great quality halo.”

Turner, who also serves on the National Restaurant Association’s board and chairs its sustainability committee, spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about developing a new line of business for Starbucks and the challenges of marketing it to consumers.

How hard is it to get consumers to rethink their perceptions of Starbucks as an evening destination, and what marketing approach do you have to take with this test?

The reason we even started down this path was that it came from our customers. They wanted a way to relax and unwind in the afternoons and evenings. We talked to them to figure out what they wanted, and they came up with small plates and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have beer and wine?’

We’re a very innovative company, so customers expect us to evolve. In Europe, a lot of those coffeehouses evolve as the day goes on. Maybe the music changes and small plates are served, and it becomes more of a gathering place, but people can still drink tea or hot chocolate.

From a marketing standpoint, the biggest challenge is awareness. Starbucks Evenings won’t go everywhere, so it’s about helping guests figure out where it is and then getting them coming back.

When you evaluate this long test, what balance do you strike between quantitative benchmarks like traffic or sales and qualitative ones like guest perceptions?

We’ve been trying to evaluate first and foremost the qualitative measurement, which is a brand fit. We’re trying to be very close to what our customers and partners — which is what we call our employees — were feeling and saying about what they wanted for Starbucks Evenings. When you get that right, usually, if you’ve been smart, profit and sales follow.

We haven’t been figuring out what it’s returning yet. It’s more about, 'Does it feel right?'

How do you develop and add new items like small plates and alcohol without negatively affecting profit or complicating operations?

I’ve been an operator for 30 years, so if anybody’s sensitive to not adding complexity, it’s me. You have got to listen to customers and innovate, or you’re dead. We designed the systems with the goal of eliminating complexity as central to everything we’re thinking about.

We let our partners and customers steer us in the direction of what a meeting place would look like. Our focus is keeping it elegant and of the highest possible quality that matches the quality of our coffee.

What sorts of limiting factors determine how far Starbucks Evenings spreads?

Our customers will tell us how far this program goes. Right now, we’re looking at whether it is the right fit for these communities. It’s so obvious right now in certain cities and store types, but definitive patterns haven’t emerged yet. In the current states we’re already in, we’re looking at expanding it in sites we feel are correct for those specific neighborhoods.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN