Pop quiz: Where is the world’s largest Starbucks?
Nope, not Seattle. Got a second guess?
If you picked the Second City, you’re correct. Starbucks opened the 35,000-square-foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chicago on Nov. 15.
The sixth in a line of big, bold and experiential shops opened in the last five years (no others are currently planned), Chicago’s is the first to serve whiskey-barrel aged coffee. It’s the first to concoct a cocktail featuring coffee and Malört, a locally-made liquor only some diehard Chicagoans appreciate. And it’s the first to open in a former Crate & Barrel.
The housewares company opened its flagship location at 646 N. Michigan Ave. in 1990 and closed it in early 2018. After more than a year of renovations, Starbucks has opened its mammoth coffee mecca. A 32,000-square-foot roastery that opened in Tokyo opened earlier this year is the second-largest. Each has a different design. As Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said at a pre-opening event in the Chicago store, “every one is a snowflake.”
The building, designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz, has not changed much on the outside. And once Chicago thaws from a deep freeze that often lasts through early spring, patrons can enjoy Michigan Avenue views from a fifth-floor terrace. The building resembles a crate on the south and a barrel on the north, harkening to Crate & Barrel’s early days when founders Carole and Gordon Segal displayed goods on the crates and barrels in which they arrived.
In the barrel area are tall, bronze-hued casks where beans are stored until tubes deliver them to coffee bars on different floors. A curved escalator wraps around the casks from the first floor to the second, where more coffee and food from Italian bakery Princi are for sale.
The third floor, where customers can order coffee brewed using seven methods as well as nitrogen-infused gelato, is a place of experimentation. The fourth floor houses the bars. Drinks at Arriviamo include the Roastery Boilermaker. Rather than a beer and a shot, this includes Starbucks Reserve Cold Brew, Koval Four Grain Whiskey, Malört, grapefruit bitters and other ingredients (all in one drink) and a sidecar of Rhine Hall Bierschnapps. The Barrel-Aged Coffee Bar serves drinks such as a Smoked Cold Fashioned, a sweet, whiskey-barrel aged cold brew with aromatic bitters. It’s alcohol-free, but that can be changed by adding a glass of Knob Creek bourbon on the side.
“It helps the brand,” says R.J. Hottovy, senior restaurant analyst at Morningstar, about the roastery. “This is something that other coffee companies are really not doing.”
Given current economic uncertainty, as well as competition from numerous other coffee purveyors, opening a Roastery in Chicago is a test for Starbucks. Still, it’s a calculated bet. Its history with Chicago dates to 1987, when it became the second U.S. city—after Seattle—with Starbucks coffee shops. Today, there are more than 100 dotted across the city, including a few on Michigan Avenue.
Now, it is Starbucks’ turn to hope for a bit of retail magic on the Magnificent Mile. “It’s the best experiential retailing you will see anywhere in the United States,” Gordon Segal said.
Even if people come only to watch coffee beans roasting and don’t buy the $6,500 hand-painted espresso machine or even a $6 latte, that’s OK. The Roastery’s job is to market the brand with an upscale feel. As Johnson said in 2018, the Roasteries are “brand amplifiers” and “innovation hubs.”