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Japan Wakes Up and Smells the Latte _ Starbucks Is Here

August 2, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan, meet mocha frappucino.

Having brought once-esoteric concoctions like espresso con panna to the masses across North America, the Seattle-based Starbucks chain is introducing yuppie coffee to Tokyo. Its first foreign outlet opened Friday in the swank Ginza shopping district.

Yuji Tsunoda _ president of Starbucks Coffee Japan and a board member of Starbucks’ Japanese partner, the slick retailer Sazaby _ has more on his mind than just peddling a few cups of joe.

``We want to introduce the coffee lifestyle to Japan,″ he said. ``We want this to be part of their daily life.″

Japan already has a coffee culture _ of sorts. It’s the world’s fourth-largest coffee consumer. Canned-coffee vending machines are everywhere. People flock to Tokyo’s tiny coffee bars to escape from their even tinier apartments.

But Starbucks says it’s offering a whole new kind of java jolt.

Japanese customers might need a little hand-holding at first to guide them through the thicket of grandes and frappucinos. But Tsunoda thinks they’ll catch on fast.

``Four years ago, how many Americans knew what a latte, doppio espresso or cappucino were?″ he said. ``It’s up to us to help our customers understand coffee better.″

Starbucks is planning to open another 10 to 15 stores in the metropolitan Tokyo area over the next year. That may not be much compared to the more than 900 outlets in North America, but Tsunoda says it’s a start.

At the new outlet, the wall menu is posted in both English and Japanese. Starbucks is even providing Japanese-language versions of pamphlets like ``Espresso _ What You Need to Know.″

Employees and customers alike can refer to blueprint-like diagrams detailing the exact specifications of a caffe latte, down to the quarter-inch of foamed milk that goes on top.

The Tokyo shop features the same colorful coffee paraphernalia featured in the U.S. stores, including mugs, espresso makers, plunger coffee brewers, filters and coasters.

The coffee, naturally, all comes from the same suppliers in the United States _ all 17 varieties of it. Starbucks T-shirts are also on sale, and the same classic jazz tracks picked especially for U.S. Starbucks stores waft gently through the air.

The prices are higher than in the United States, but reasonable by local standards. A small regular coffee goes for 250 yen _ $2.30 _ about half what an upscale coffee house charges.

But Starbucks’ main competition is more likely to come from the chains of discount coffee houses like Doutor and Pronto that have sprung up in Japan over the past several years as quickly as Starbucks stores mushroomed in the United States and Canada.

A Pronto outlet just down the street from the new Starbucks was nearly empty today while a long line of customers snaked out of the new store.

The coffee is cheaper at Pronto _ just 160 yen _ $1.50 _ for a small cup _ but the low ceiling, somber interior and cafeteria-style plastic trays hardly evoke the atmosphere of a gourmet coffee house.

Neither does the food. Coffee-accompanying snacks at Pronto include fried chicken with spaghetti on a hot dog bun and that crowd pleaser, the salty fried noodle sandwich with seaweed on top.

Starbucks, on the other hand, takes a more epicurean tack _ cookies, muffins, fresh croissants and sandwiches made from pita bread and sesame-seed bagels.

Pronto employee Yuka Noguchi claims not to be worried by the new espresso-slinging competition down the block, but she does allow that ``the store is so pretty inside _ it looks light and spacious.″

An even more ringing endorsement came from Je-chol Lee, sauntering merrily out of Starbucks with a steaming latte in hand. The 24-year-old, who got hooked on gourmet brews when he studied in the United States, is quitting his job at a computer software importer to work for the U.S. chain.

``It’s great to be able to get good coffee again,″ he said.

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