In downtown New Orleans, local artistry and distinctive architecture are never more than a stone’s throw away. For this reason, it may come as a surprise to some visitors to find the world’s most ubiquitous coffeehouse chain nestled among the businesses on Canal Street.
But, unlike other units boasting the Starbucks name, this store capitalizes on the growing trend of interior design uniquely tailored to fit the surrounding neighborhood.
Inside the Canal Street store, an apothecary-like bar and a chandelier made of brass horns hint at the building’s history, as well as New Orleans’s rich jazz scene. “That area of New Orleans has been a target for us for some time,” says Andrew Bello, the brand’s regional design director. “When they first presented this site for us—Canal Street and St. Charles—we were over the moon.”
Bello, who manages a region known as the “Sunbelt” spanning from Los Angeles to Miami, admits the company was waiting for such a coveted, historic spot. Housed in what was once an early 20th century merchant’s business and home, the space and surrounding area provided the design inspiration for Bello and his team.
“There’s something to unearth and there’s some kind of relevancy,” Bello says. “We want to peel that onion back and expose something about the architecture.”
Building upon an existing structure and incorporating that structure’s past may not be the norm in the industry, especially in the U.S., but more concepts are adopting the approach. Tanya Spaulding, a principal at the Minneapolis design and marketing firm Shea Design, says restaurants and retailers alike are taking advantage of unique real estate opportunities.
With clients like Caribou Coffee and Argo Tea, Shea employs location-specific design details to build ties with the local community surrounding its projects.
“We designed a prototype for Caribou a couple of years ago by looking at it this way: If you’re a brand like Starbucks or Caribou, what are the most important components of your brand that you need to communicate in this space?” Spaulding says. “A lot of times it’s the theater of the coffee. We develop a working, moving prototype that can be adjusted for each location.”
For Caribou, Shea kept larger design elements like the layout of the service counter and retail products consistent while smaller details allowed for localized customization. In one Chicago store, recycled flooring from a nearby bowling alley was repurposed as a table. At another location, Caribou incorporated children’s artwork from a school into the décor.
Beyond furniture and décor pieces, murals and wall art can also be easily adjusted to fit a specific location. The walls and shelves of the Canal Street Starbucks are filled with small canvas paintings of coffee beans, black-and-white photos of Starbucks managers volunteering in post-Katrina recovery efforts, and a mural of old trading ships arriving in the New Orleans port.
Howland Blackiston, a principal at the Westport, Connecticut–based retail branding and design firm King-Casey, has worked with quick-service chains like Firehouse Subs and Corner Bakery. The more retailers get away from the cookie-cutter approach, the more they win over the customer, he says.
“What could be easier than putting murals up throughout the store that are unique to the store?” Blackiston says. Each Firehouse Subs location showcases an individualized mural; some hearken back to the history of the area and others feature community touchstones.
When customizing a store, retailers must ensure design doesn’t trump the product or dilute brand recognition, Spaulding says.
“You have to be really smart about what you design. Architecture doesn’t sell the product. The experience you create sells,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how pretty it looks. If it’s not making money, it’s not a success.”
Steve Jones, the founder and principal of SF Jones Architects in Los Angeles, says a location should never be so different it is viewed as a separate entity. “You try to tailor it, but to a certain point, there’s a fine balance between using the architecture and design of the area and being able to retain the same brand concept,” he says.
Cost is another obstacle retailers face in creating a location as unique and detailed as the Canal Street Starbucks. “The higher profile projects give us more opportunity to do that: bigger budget, bigger store,” Bello says.
“There are design costs; there are costs involved whether you do it internally or hire someone like King-Casey. Those are one-time costs,” Blackiston says. He encourages clients to look at the bigger picture. Certain expenses can be avoided by designing prototype stores with flexible features that allow for some customization. But design experts warn that some initial costs are unavoidable.
“Don’t get too hung up on the first one we build because it will be cost-effective in the long term,” Blackiston says. “As you do more of these, you can home in on those vital, critical things that you must do and get rid of the other stuff.”
Working in clusters, such as cities, professional parks, and college campuses, can also help offset the bottom line. Greenleaf, a gourmet salad shop with four locations in Southern California, is one of SF Jones Architects’ clients taking this approach. Having a limited number of stores within a concentrated area gives Jones greater flexibility with his designs.
“Restaurateurs do tend to make the first one or two clustered in the same area so they can manage them better and create a presence,” Jones says. “We have an overall theme of reclaimed wood, but we’re trying to take it past using old stuff and working on things that suggest reclaimed but not necessarily.” Greenleaf incorporated colorful tiles to draw from the fruits of the juice bar.
Fine-tuning a one-of-a-kind store can require a larger upfront investment, but retailers agree the lasting benefits can make the initial investment worthwhile. By making in-roads within its neighborhood, large retailers can build a more personal relationship with the community and cultivate customer loyalty.
As for the Canal Street Starbucks, Bello says, the company might borrow décor elements for other locations, but it will not create a replica. For now, the distinct location hits the mark by brightening the Starbucks brand with Big Easy flair.
“It instantly says it,” Blackiston says. “You walk in with all those trombones and saxophones hanging from the ceiling and go, ‘This is the Jazz City.’”
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