Floppy with your Frappuccino?

Starbucks, flying under the radar with Circadia Coffee House, woos the tech crowd.


Deborah Claymon
January 22, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Of all the places you might end up frittering away an afternoon over multiple cappuccinos reading the latest Barbara Kingsolver or debating the merits of Michael Jordan's retirement, Starbucks is probably not one of them. At best, the omnipresent coffee bar is a place to grab your cardboard cup of caffeine and split. And though a new Starbucks may stir the hearts of suburban moms who can finally get a decent decaf mocha in their local strip mall, there's a certain amount of anti-Starbucks backlash among urban dwellers -- who consider it their duty to favor neighborhood coffeehouses where the tables are worn smooth by many underemployed elbows.

But Starbucks has something new up its sleeve. It's called Circadia Coffee House, and it is already secretly charming the hip, anti-Starbucks types in San Francisco who want a place for their laptops and their lattes.

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"Consider Circadia an update of the typical New York or European coffee house for today's age," says Gail DiSantis, Circadia's project manager in San Francisco. The cafe is wired to provide Internet access from each table and grouping of well-worn couches and armchairs. (Network access is free for now, but that might change.) In addition to a menu that ranges from focaccia sandwiches to espresso fondue, Compaq laptops can be rented for $9.50 an hour. Telephones that take credit cards are stashed on end tables. Floppy disks, at $1, are less than half the price of a Frappuccino.

At Circadia, being digital is encouraged by the customers and the staff. "Talking on a cellular phone or working at a computer is not considered pretentious here," says Chip Hall, an independent technology business consultant who has adopted Circadia as his meeting place of choice. One recent Tuesday morning before 8 a.m., there were already three patrons tapping away on their laptops.

But Circadia is not simply a cyber-cafe. Like the cafe's Starbucks parentage itself, the technology is artfully hidden behind an eclectic mix of furnishings designed to feel like an arty, independent establishment.

Circadia is built into the corner of a former San Francisco warehouse at Mariposa and Bryant streets, an industrial area home to a growing number of start-up technology companies that eschew the office parks and traffic jams of Silicon Valley. To soften the warehouse surroundings, red velvet drapes hang from an exposed ceiling to a faux-brick floor. Even the Green Room -- a conference room that can be rented for $50 an hour, including use of a Gateway media wall presentation computer -- is more homey than high tech, thanks to an antique wood dining set.

The techy undertone has resonated with the area's digerati. A few local entrepreneurs already refer to a certain kind of business meeting -- too sensitive to carry over office cubicles but not worthy of dinner -- as "the Circadia treatment." On a recent morning, in the space of a few hours, one laptop-toting twentysomething (rumored to be starting an electronic commerce venture) moved table to table for three successive business meetings.

"It's not yet Bucks," says Bud Rosenthal, referring to the Woodside, Calif., diner where Silicon Valley venture capitalists make deals. But Rosenthal, a Circadia regular and business development manager for the Springfield Project (a to-be-announced Internet start-up), says he often bumps into contacts he hopes will be good for business.

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Starbucks is counting on such serendipity for Circadia itself. Since the cafe's Nov. 28 opening, not a penny of the company's marketing budget has been put toward the flagship San Francisco Circadia -- DiSantis says the company is relying on neighborhood word-of-mouth. According to Taylor Fogelquist, a host from KQED, the local National Public Radio station across the street, it's working: "I use it for everything. Coffee in the morning, meetings for work and otherwise and a comfortable place to hear good jazz on the weekends."

Fogelquist seems to have caught on to the subtlety of the name Circadia as well. A reference to circadian rhythms, the behavioral rhythms associated with the 24-hour cycles of the earth's rotation, the cafe also has a full bar and stage for evening concerts and poetry readings (held each Monday), making it an environment for all times of the day. But Rosenthal says he did not even see the bar until he had spent more than a month frequenting Circadia: "I had never taken my head out of my computer long enough to notice."

The subtle clues to the cafe's ownership by Starbucks are also easy to miss. Hall says when he noticed Starbucks' trademark coffees on the menu, the staff went out of their way not to make the connection. "Initially they told me they only served their coffee," he recalls. Assistant manager Andrew Wilson says that's changed: Like people at a support group who can finally admit their condition, he says the staff is proud of their Starbucks affiliation and does not aim to hide it.

Don't expect Circadia to stay quiet long, about Starbucks or otherwise. DiSantis says business in December was adequate, but if she has the same bottom line in January and February, she'll be adopting more grandiose marketing plans. If the San Francisco prototype is successful, the next Circadia may open in New York, says Wilson. "But it will never be on every street corner. It is a one or two per city concept."

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There are already hints of bigger promotions to come: The cafe may not yet have a Web site, but it has valet parking and sells T-shirts and baseball caps in addition to Starbucks coffee beans, mugs, etc. What neighborhood joint sells clothing before it has been around two months? One owned by Starbucks, and proud of it.


Deborah Claymon

Deborah Claymon is managing editor of CNET News.com television, a weekly technology business program on CNBC.

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