Video: Starbucks brewing a winner?

updated 9/29/2009 4:30:26 PM ET 2009-09-29T20:30:26

Caffeine addicts nationwide got first tastes of Starbucks Corp.’s newest offering as the coffee giant blanketed the nation with tens of thousands of free samples of its instant coffee called Via.

The beverage, which comes in a long cylindrical plastic sleeve and dissolves in a cup of water, debuted nationwide Tuesday after months of preliminary sales in test markets.

Starbucks employees handed out free samples of Via and mixed up drinks for customers from coast to coast as part of the chain’s quest to convince customers that instant coffee — long viewed as inferior by U.S. coffee drinkers — can taste as good as brewed.

Verdicts from an unscientific sampling of customers ranged from a tentative thumbs-up to serious skepticism.

“I can’t tell the difference,” said Margaret Vazquez, 39, who lined up to try a sample in San Francisco’s financial district Tuesday morning. “But that could be because it’s the first coffee I’ve had today.”

Nearby, Shay Jariya, 40, and co-worker Peter Yerardi, 36, were less impressed.

“I think it’s OK,” Jariya said. “If you’re going out to buy coffee, you want coffee, not a packet.”

Yerardi praised Via for being “not as strong” as the company’s standard brews, which some have criticized as being too harsh or bitter.

In Wichita, Kan., coffee lover Polly Basore has no plans to try Via — despite the Seattle-based company’s push.

Basore, 42, drinks at least five cups of coffee each day, but said it’d take more than giveaways to convince her to try what she considered to be fake coffee.

“I go to Starbucks for expensive coffee, good coffee,” she said. “Coffee should be brewed.”

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Backed by national television ads — a rarity for the company — along with large-scale distribution to about 1,500 sites outside its stores, the Via launch shows just how determined Starbucks is to own a stake in the $21 billion worldwide instant coffee market.

It was formulated during nearly two decades of research by the Seattle-based coffee giant, which is hoping to stake a claim on the $21 billion global market for the insta-brews.

“We think there’s a big prize here,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday, adding that first-day sales were exceeding expectations.

While instant coffee is pervasive throughout Europe — accounting for as much as 80 percent of coffee sales in the U.K. — the beverage hasn’t won over American taste buds, in large part because of their image as an inferior knock-off of drip-brewed beverages.

But it’s that perception that Starbucks executives are trying to change. They hope Via’s 3-packs ($2.95) and 12-packs ($9.95) will eventually be as prevalent on store shelves as its packaged coffee is now.

To win over skeptics, the company is also conducting in-store taste tests beginning Friday. Through Monday, customers can sample Via and the company’s Pike Place brewed coffee and guess which is instant. Participants will get a $1 off coupon.

While experts see opportunity for Starbucks, they also see challenges.

Bob Goldin, an analyst at the Chicago-based food consultant Technomic Inc., said Starbucks faces twin hurdles of perception and price. The Starbucks instant comes in just shy of a dollar a cup, compared with the pennies a cup of home-brewed joe can cost.

Whether Via will be a home run remains to be seen, particularly as competitor Nestle SA ramps up marketing of its own single-serve instant Nescafe coffee.

If Starbucks can get Via in front of enough consumers, Goldin said, it could have a chance to succeed.

“They’re trying to find a breakthrough and I give them credit for that,” he said. “But it’s easier said than done.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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