Can Starbucks’ new lunch lineup provide an afternoon jolt for the chain? A new lunch menu launches on April 11 at more than 100 Chicago Starbucks locations; the plan is to eventually introduce the menu nationwide. Called Mercato, it features grab-and-go salads and sandwiches that are prepared at a local kitchen and will be delivered each morning to Starbucks’ coffee shops. Excess food will be donated, something shops like Pret A Manger already do.
The freshly prepared offerings are a departure from Starbucks’ breakfast sandwiches, which are frozen. Starbucks sees this new menu as a chance to snag customers who stop in the morning for a coffee. The idea is to entice those a.m. warriors to also grab a lunchtime salad or sandwich to eat at their desks later in the afternoon. Sara Trilling, a Starbucks senior vice president, said more than half of the coffee chain’s business happens after 11 a.m.
Chicago is already a competitive lunch market; several salad chains, including Just Salad and Sweetgreen, sometimes draw crowds. Panera Bread operates about a dozen locations in the city. Its new owner, JAB Holding Co., also owns Peet’s and Intelligentsia Coffee. JAB is targeting Starbucks’ customers, as the fast-casual arena continues to evolve. These lunch moves are also designed to combat increased competition. Starbucks brass insists the company is listening to market conditions, and sees Mercato as an evolution of consumers’ desires for more vegan, gluten-free, and high-protein offerings.
Mercato features a mix of nine hot and cold sandwiches (ranging from $4.95 for a half size to $7.95 for a full). They’re designed to be paired with one of four side salads ($4.75 to $5.75). There are also four larger entree salads ($7.95 to $8.95). Starbucks management concedes flavors and textures can change as packaged food sits on shelves, so the company has taken a few steps to prevent flavor degradation. For example, the salad dressings rest at the bottom of the bowl. Customers will have to toss their salads, but that prevents saturation, reducing the occurrence of soggy greens.
Starbucks held a media tasting on Thursday in Chicago to preview a few items. Here’s a few first impressions of their new offerings.
Cauliflower Tabbouleh Side Salad: The cauliflower tabbouleh side salad has a bright flavor. The mix of cucumber and tomato is classic, but also reminiscent of fillings offered at an assembly-line Mediterranean chain.
Roasted Carrot & Kale Side Salad: The carrots on the salad were chopped differently than this official photo depicts. Starbucks says those irregularities will happen and that this proves the food is fresh. The ancient grains weren’t mushy and had a pleasant sweetness. The preserved lemon yogurt dressing looks like an egg yolk, but wasn’t overly citrus-y.
Zaatar Chicken & Lemon Tahini Salad: The cucumbers are already dressed with tzatizki in the this salad with North African flavors. Not sure what the tzatizki’s purpose was; it tasted like plain yogurt. The chicken is sliced super thin and is fine in the realm of packaged salad chicken — it’s not rubbery. The carrots are supposedly marinated, but it’s hard to decipher what marinade was used. Ancient grains provided a nice contrast.
Almond Butter, Strawberries & Jam Sandwich: Clocking in at 600 calories, the most-caloric offering of Starbucks’ new lunch offerings. There are sizable chunks of strawberries and almond butter that also offer the occasional chunk of almond. The Bavarian bread would be even better if a parent trimmed the crusts off.
Herbed Chicken & Fig Spread Sandwich: This sandwich’s filling shares a lot in common with the zaatar chicken salad. The big difference is the fig spread, which holds the whole item together and would be at home on a cheese plate. The Italian soft roll isn’t too firm, but doesn’t offer much else.
Cubano Sandwich: Starbucks says the smokey flavor on the pork loin actually comes from a smoker. Pulled pork joins the pork loin and it’s a nice approximation of what a Cuban sandwich should taste like, using flatbread to hold it together. The smartphone-sized sandwich could use a little kick, as the pickled jalapeños don’t deliver any heat.