An Experimental New Starbucks Store: Tiny, Portable, and Hyper Local

A new style of smaller, LEED-certified Starbucks may touch down near you soon. It's all part of a plan to evolve the coffee giant's business.

Starbucks, of course, can’t afford to be totally idealist. They still have market challenges of their own and, sooner or later, there are only so many large coffee houses you can build and expect profitability. Rubinfeld describes the issue as one of neighborhood-level demand. Starbucks sees countless markets that might exist, but each is a bit too small to sustain a traditional store with larger square footage.

Their new building paradigm--officially labeled a “pilot program”--is a confluence of all these various impulses. The environment. Localism. Market growth. Low-cost, low-risk expandability. And making it all come together is the responsibility of Anthony Perez, a senior concept design manager who envisioned Starbucks’s original prefab store.

"Modern modular," a prefab modular frame under a unique facade of local materials. (Courtesy Starbucks)

“To both build scale while having things be locally relevant, that’s really a designer’s problem to solve,” Perez tells me. “It’s a really, really challenging problem.” But it’s not an impossible one. The core of each of these new, small Starbucks locations will be a prefabricated, modular set of rooms. At a mere 500 square feet, they have just enough space to squeeze in three to five employees along with all of the coffee making apparatuses necessary to execute a full Starbucks menu.


But around this mass-produced structure, Perez envisioned high-end facades constructed out of local materials (“local” is actually not just jargon in this case, it’s a LEED-certification point in Starbucks’s favor, meaning the material is sourced within a 500-mile radius). These facades exude “craftsmanship,” I’m told, and can be anything from reclaimed lumber to corrugated metals. The entire point is that there’s not one set go-to in this circumstance. The modular frame can become almost anything with a high-end facade tacked on top. (Also of note, LEED will give Starbucks even more points for using signage to label where parts of their facade were sourced from.)

“What we’ve done is standardize the interior,” he explains. “But what we want to be able to do is, as people are going around this prefab, we want the materials on that exterior to feel like it’s part of the local environment.”

Perez sees this facade as both a literal and metaphorical layer to the building that can make a mass-produced corporate product into a relevant place to the community. It even leaves room for “art panels.” Much like coffee shops will hang pieces from local artists on the walls, Perez wants to see these rear illuminated exterior panels serve a similar function--to push individuality and maybe even local artistic voices.

It’s important to remember, all of what you see was essentially lowered off a truck. (Courtesy Starbucks)

“We’re working with lots of ways to build palettes similar to what we have inside the cafes, but now we have them on the outside,” he explains. “We’re not looking for all the stores to look similar. They’re going to look very, very different around this idea of craft.”

But amidst all of Perez’s rhetoric of “moments of art” and “delight,” you can see the wheels of a multi-billion-dollar corporation spinning underneath. For one, these modern modular buildings aren’t just placed anywhere. They’re placed particularly on the side of the road on which the most locals drive to work. First and foremost, Starbucks knows that whatever else has changed in 20 years, their coffee is still a “convenience-driven product.”


“Our buildings need to be lanterns, beacons of light in some ways,” Perez says. “We’re responding to a palette of darkness. For a good part of the year in most of our markets, most of our business in a drive thru is done first thing in the morning. Instead of having just a few glowing signs and a light in the hallway, is there way to do this to make it a lot more interesting? Actually activating the building in such a way that’s taking advantage of light?” He’s careful to add that they’ll do it in "a very environmentally sensitive way."

Some might see that last tag-on as lip service, but from an awkward set of moments and questions that followed, I inferred that Perez had just spilled the beans on something much bigger. Consider the small, modular locations. Consider the LEED certification. Consider the power savings of a drive-up business that doesn’t need to feed electricity to laptops all day. Starbucks might not just be designing modern modular locations that are off the normal consumer grid--they could be designing low-footprint stores that eventually go off the grid altogether.

Click here to see more photos of An Experimental New Starbucks Store.

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