Whether in search of a caffeine fix or simply to take a break, it has become popular throughout Hong Kong to enjoy a cup of freshly prepared coffee in one of the many comfortable cafés peppered around the territory. A plethora of options are now readily available with exotic names like caramel macchiato and frappuccino. Indeed, with this seemingly endless choice of coffee, few will recall that Hong Kong is traditionally a tea drinking society.
Glancing back 10 years, it is evident that most people had little or no access to premium espresso, and fewer still had heard of Starbucks.
"Today, the coffee culture continues to mature in Hong Kong and people now have much higher expectations for premium espresso," reveals Thomas Hahn, general manager, Coffee Concepts (Hong Kong) Ltd. "Consumers have become increasingly interested in the many types of premium coffee grown around the world. In addition, they now like to customise beverages to suit their personal tastes."
Setting foot on Hong Kong soil at the turn of the millennium, Starbucks has helped shape the coffee culture in Hong Kong. In merely eight years, the number of Starbucks outlets has grown from zero to more than 100 stores.
Entering a new market requires a degree of adaptation to the local environment. Starbucks observes that Hong Kong consumers tend to enjoy a bite with their drink. In Chinese teahouses, for instance, people prefer to have a drink accompanied by an egg tart or a buttered pineapple bun. For this reason, Starbucks has introduced a variety of food choices and snacks, such as the locally popular sausage rolls, to complement the array of beverages on offer.
As a multinational company, Starbucks offers not only coffee and food popular in Starbucks stores worldwide, but also special delicacies that cater to local tastes. One example is the Starbucks mooncake available during Mid-Autumn Festival.
Acutely aware of Hong Kong's tea-drinking tradition, the company has also introduced alternatives to coffee such as Tea Latte and Frappuccino blended juice drinks, as well as grab-and-go drinks like bottled Frappuccino and Tazo tea, plus a whole range of thematic variations.
A personal and environmental touch to the Starbucks experience lies perhaps in the ceramic mugs and stainless steel utensils customers can enjoy, as opposed to paper and plastic. The "bring your own tumbler" programme has also proved tremendously popular, as has the use of recyclable materials to minimise unnecessary wastage.
Beyond the beverage
Modern-day coffee culture itself stretches far beyond the drink. It is about leisure and lifestyle, ambience and service. This calls for a store design which creates what Starbucks calls a "third place" experience —a place beyond the office and home, where customers can relax, enjoy great coffee and music and meet friends and loved ones, against a backdrop of impeccable service and knowledgeable baristas.
Store design often differs to meet the specific needs of the community. The company's 100th store on Hollywood Road, for instance, features two long tables with electric sockets for the convenience of those who need laptop power. A long sofa, together with a wall of Frappuccino bottles and the aroma of fresh roasted coffee, greets customers at the entrance. Each bottle is filled with photos of customers and staff from its first to 100th store in Hong Kong, connecting the coffee culture with the local scene.
The coffee culture has gained such popularity that Starbucks has launched a loyalty programme under which customers have the added privilege of owning a Starbucks card. Instead of flipping through a wallet for bills and change, all they need is the Starbucks card, which can be loaded like an Octopus card with any denomination between HK$100 and HK$4,000.
The beauty of the card is that, regardless of currency, it can be used in thousands of stores stretching across the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Mexico. An added security measure is available for patrons who register online because the balance of a lost card can be transferred to a new one.
Over the past year, public education is a major tenet of Starbucks' initiative to promote the coffee culture. "We have hosted seminars enabling people to experience the different flavours and aromas of a variety of coffee beans, as well as providing information about their origins and the farming communities growing them," stresses Mr Hahn. The result is a discerning clientele eager to embrace high quality gourmet coffee and support disadvantaged farmers in the process.
The coffee experience is also reflected in the price —a nd for a good cause. "Pricing depends on a number of economic factors," explains Mr Hahn. "A very important point to consider is the amount Starbucks pays farmers for their coffee. We pay premium prices that are over and above the prevailing commodity-grade coffee price for two reasons: farmers receive fair prices for their produce and we foster long-term relationships with them as a result." The proceeds farmers receive are often invested in social community projects, thereby helping them build sustainable farms around the world.