Starbucks Cracks Open Coconuts as an Alternative Milk

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Fans of premium brews will get a new option at Starbucks (SBUX) next week. Baristas will begin offering coconut milk as an option in patron beverages starting on Feb. 17 after a successful test late last year.

Starbucks Single Origin Sumatra Coconut Milk is vegan-friendly, made with coconuts from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is being added after years of customer requests for a non-dairy milk option beyond soy.

The suggestion to add a new option originated on, a Starbucks site that, as its name suggests, compiles member ideas. Fellow Starbucks fans can chime in with comments on the suggestions as they vote up the ones that they feel the chain should embrace the most. Many companies encourage the submission of ideas from the public, but you won’t see too many companies that democratize the process and make it as transparent as Starbucks does.

Scrolling through the site, you’ll see hundreds of suggestions for an alternative to soy, with almond or coconut milk as the two most popular requests, ultimately voted up by tens of thousands of visitors. Starbucks went with coconut over almond as an option for its hot, iced and Frappuccino beverages, arguing that it had fewer allergen challenges.

It Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

Some might argue that adding yet another option will slow down the lines during peak morning hours, but Starbucks has found a way to excel despite its perpetually widening menu. Given its large arsenal of bases and syrups, baristas can combine ingredients to concoct as many as 170,000 offerings.

McDonald’s (MCD) gets called out for blowing up its menu — from 80 items to 125 in the past few years — but Starbucks opening up the flavor wheel doesn’t appear to be turning off java junkies. Starbucks announced that comparable-store sales soared 5 percent in its latest quarter relative to the prior year’s holiday period.

Strong sales at Starbucks may suggest that it shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken, but it’s also the chain’s responsiveness — acting quickly in the past to do everything from stamping out a controversial red food coloring to eliminating some breakfast sandwiches that carried unsavory scents — that has kept it on top.

It probably also didn’t have much of a choice. Rival Dunkin’ Brands (DNKN) began offering almond milk back in September. Starbucks began testing coconut milk in select stores a month later. Soy is a workable alternative to traditional milk for some who may be lactose intolerant, but with some of those people also having a soy allergy, it was just a matter of time before Starbucks embraced almond or coconut as a non-dairy milk choice.

Dunkin’ going with almond milk last year probably steered Starbucks toward coconut. No one wants to be branded a copycat. After topping $17 billion in revenue over the past year, Starbucks is riding healthy momentum as it heads into 2015, ready to climb a coconut tree to make itself more appealing to an even wider audience.

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