Kamyra L. Harding never gives her son coffee or soda, and rarely opts for treats such as chocolate cupcakes. But about twice a month, the mom does give in to her 4-year-old son Garrett David Brand’s request for a Chai tea latte from Starbucks.
“People here already know us,” Harding said on a recent visit to a Starbucks on New York's Upper West Side. “They know we want extra milk.”
Garrett has been a regular Starbucks customer since “he could hold a cup,” his mother says. Now when he passes a Starbucks he says, “I want to buy this tea.”
Starbucks, keenly aware of the pitfalls of being seen as trying to lure kids to drink sweet, caffeinated beverages, has for years insisted that it does not market to children — even as stroller traffic jams build outside some stores and teenagers pack others.
Now, however, the company is revising its stance on kids, acknowledging that the under-18 set has become part of the coffee chain’s customer base.
Starbucks spokesman Brandon Borrman said there are still no plans to market specifically to children, and grown-ups need not worry that the Cartoon Network will be playing on the flat-panel screen of their neighborhood Starbucks anytime soon.
But Borrman said Seattle-based Starbucks is considering whether to add new drinks or drink sizes that better meet the needs of kids or teens.
Right now, it only lists limited kids’ items, such as milk and hot chocolate, in a smaller size, while teenagers have the choice of adult-sized, and often heavily caffeinated, beverages. A 16-ounce Caramel Frappucino coffee drink, for example, has nearly three times the caffeine as a 12-ounce can of regular Coke or Pepsi.
Starbucks lattes, Frappuccinos and other drinks generally come in 12-ounce “tall,” 16-ounce “grande” and 20-ounce hot or 24-ounce cold “venti” size. An eight-ounce “short” size is often available but not always listed on the menu.
“We need to be realistic about who comes into our stores, so if we have children who are coming into our stores that are on their own, we want to make sure that we have products that are appropriate to that age group,” Borrman said. “Do we have an alternative to a venti-size caffeinated beverage that would be more appropriate?”
Borrman said the company also now recognizes that it is a family destination. That means you might see an ad for the company that features a family — although you wouldn’t likely see a Starbucks ad with a child on his or her own.
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“What we want to do is recognize the fact that there are people who are under the age of 18 who come into our stores,” he said.
The company also is looking at whether other items in the store that might appeal to kids, such as its signature line of teddy bears, should be placed in parts of the store where kids can’t get to them as easily.
As of now, however, Borrman said Starbucks is still evaluating how to cater to younger customers and doesn’t know when more formal decisions will be reached.
Analyst John Owens of Morningstar said it is pretty clear that teens have become part of Starbucks’ regular customer base.
He also admits that even his 3-year-old recognizes the company’s logo from frequent trips there with adults. At his local Starbucks, he said, the baristas refer to steamed milk as a “babyccino.”
“While Starbucks hasn’t actively marketed towards that demographic, I think the Starbucks brand has appealed to teenagers, and so there’s certainly an opportunity there for the company to increase business,” he said.
But, he said, the company walks a fine line if it is seen as doing anything specifically to appeal to a younger audience.
“There would be concerns about serving up heavily caffeinated drinks to kids, much like the cola companies have had to deal with,” he said. “So it’s something that they have to be careful about.”
In addition to the caffeine in Starbucks drinks, some nutritionists have raised red flags about Starbucks delicacies such as its frozen Frappuccinos, the most indulgent of which are packed with more calories than a McDonald’s Big Mac.
“Starbucks has lots of sweetened, cold, high-calorie caffeinated beverages that in some cases will contribute to weight gain, (and) in other cases are replacing healthier foods in the diet,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates for better nutrition.
He notes that the company also has a bakery case full of cookies, scones and other high-calorie baked goods that are likely to tempt kids and teens.
“It’s not terribly different from drinking soda pop and eating Hostess Twinkies,” he said.
Starbucks’ Borrman said the company has healthier options in addition to its higher-calorie drinks.
But Jacobson worries that teenagers aren’t necessarily going to make a healthy choice, especially when surrounded by a group of friends. Adell Ahmed, 15, and two friends recently ordered tall Caramel Frappuccinos at a New York City Starbucks.
Asked whether the drink they had ordered contained caffeine, they all said, “I don’t know.”
But the three did say they were keenly aware of the brand — whether Starbucks has been trying to market to them or not.
“You see it in commercials, sometimes on billboards, and people in movies drink Starbucks sometimes,” Ahmed said.
Jacobson, the nutrition advocate, said he would like to see the company list calories more prominently on its menus and more overtly promote its smaller, eight-ounce size. But he doubts adding more nutritional choices, such as fruit juice or carrot sticks, would dissuade young customers from ordering the higher-calorie beverages.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to pass a law saying you have to be 18 to get into a Starbucks … so I think it’s just a phenomenon we’re just going to live with,” he said.
Thanks to Starbucks’ exploding growth and popularity over the past 10 years, many young customers are essentially growing up with the stores. Starbucks currently has about 10,000 U.S. locations, and the company expects that number to eventually double.
John Huddleston, 9, gets a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino — a non-coffee beverage — every week or two. He has been a regular at the store since he was 7, but for now he snubs the caffeinated beverages.
“I don’t like coffee that much,” he said.
Melody Esteves, 13, visits Starbucks a few times a week, often with friends. The New York City resident said she has been a regular since she was 11, often opting for white chocolate mochas or flavored iced tea.
“The thing is addictive,” she said of Starbucks.
Owens, the analyst, notes that Starbucks also has other challenges as more kids come to its stores, including the fact that Starbucks are meant to be seen as a “third place,” between work and home, where adults can relax with a book, newspaper or laptop. That down time can be ruined by a loud group of teenagers or a passel of kids running around while their parents sip lattes.
Borrman said issues such as those are handled at the individual store level.
“Obviously it’s of primary importance to us that all of our customers can enjoy our stores,” he said.
MSNBC.com's Wei Du contributed to this story.