Seattle's Best Coffee, Booted From Borders, Still on Course for World Domination

If you're the type of fellow who buys his tomes at the middling, bankrupted bookseller known as Borders, it is now official: By August you will no longer be able to combine this activity with purchasing a cup of joe at the middling, onsite coffee purveyor calling itself Seattle's Best. But fear not, middling coffee junkies! Seattle's Best is coming to (or has already arrived at) several unfancy locations near you! In fact, it is in the process of taking over the world!

First, the divorce: Last month, Borders announced its intention to end its seven-year relationship with Seattle's Best, a subsidiary of Starbucks, saying it was too expensive to continue with the partnership in light of the bookseller's bankruptcy reorganization. Starbucks had expressed concern that Borders would keep elements of Seattle's Best visible in its stores, thereby potentially injuring its brand. This week, a bankruptcy court judge took a Solomonic approach to making the split official:

Borders will be free to operate its caf├ęs under its own name or employ another firm to take on the barista role, and Starbucks will have certainty that its Seattle's Best brand won't be tied to another provider's coffee through such branding tools as logos or coffee cups.

But while breakups are always hard, don't go feeling all bad for the uprooted roasters. Formed in 1970 as a coffee and ice-cream shop called the Wet Whisker, Seattle's Best endured two name changes and a series of corporate masters before falling into the hands of Starbucks in 2003. It languished there in relative obscurity until the fall of 2009, when Michelle Gass, formerly head of marketing for Starbucks, became its president. Gass set about turning Seattle's Best into Starbucks' vehicle for taking over the downmarket parts of the world not already used to overpriced coffee--for playing Old Navy to Starbucks' Banana Republic, if you will.

And she has wasted little time in positioning Seattle's Best to become "the most accessible premium cup of coffee in the world," as Jenny McCabe, the company's communications director, puts it. Since Gass took over, Seattle's Best has become the coffee you buy in all Burger Kings and Subways in the U.S., the one you get on all Delta flights domestic and international, and the one you pour yourself at the complimentary breakfast at a bunch of Best Western motels--all places where no Starbucks products were previously available. According to McCabe, who swears these figures are accurate, since late 2009 Seattle's Best has gone from being available in 3,000 locations to 50,000 locations.

As for the quality of the coffee, the beans aren't any worse than Starbucks' (they promise!), but Seattle's Best coffee is geared for "smoothness" (read: blandness), as opposed to the "bold" flavors of, say, Starbucks' popular Sumatra roast.

So yeah, Borders or no Borders, they're taking over the world all over again.

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