Quick stops offer cheap meals

EVERETT — If thrift is the new black, then restaurant and espresso stand owners hope to cash in by introducing “value” offerings to entice thrifty consumers.

Nationally, the value trend has played well. Cash-conscious customers have flocked to fast-food restaurants, boosting sales at chains such as McDonald’s. Recently, a locally owned espresso stand chain tapped into the value trend by introducing its own $2 menu.

“We wanted to create a way for customers who are low on cash to continue to be able to afford their daily espresso,” said Christian Kar, owner of the Espresso Connection. “This is just the answer we were looking for. Customers can get a drink and breakfast for around the same amount they used to pay for a drink.”

The Espresso Connection has drive-through coffee shops in south Marysville and Monroe. Its $2 value menu includes drinks — chocolate Americano, southern sweet tea and a brown sugar cinnamon latte — as well as breakfast food items including a yogurt parfait and oatmeal with toppings.

A few of those items should sound familiar as value offerings from national franchises. For instance, McDonald’s just launched its $1 sweet tea. The fast-food chain has long offered a dollar menu with items such as a fruit and yogurt parfait, the “McDouble” cheeseburger, or fries. Those low-cost offerings helped McDonald’s increase sales by 6.8 percent in the United States in February over the previous year.

Value items also paid off for Subway restaurants, which introduced its $5 foot-long sandwich special last June. The chain outpaced its competitors, posting growth of 17.1 percent sales in 2008. That’s above the 3.4 percent sales growth for the nation’s top 500 restaurants, according to Technomic Inc., a consulting firm, which released its findings last week.

The Espresso Connection isn’t the only java chain to try a value menu.

Seattle-based Starbucks recently started offering its $3.95 value pairings, available all day. Customers can pick a 12-ounce Pike Place coffee and one of four breakfast sandwiches or a 12-ounce latte and an oatmeal or slice of reduced fat coffee cake. Starbucks’ lower-priced offerings will keep the espresso giant competitive in tough times, its chief executive recently told investors at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting.

“We’re being incredibly smart,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chief executive. “We’re doing everything we can to be sensitive to the needs of our customers. We can no longer sit back and ignore the pressure that our customers are under.”

Espresso Connection’s Kar said his value menu has been a hit with regular customers but also has helped the chain attract new customers.

“Customers are thrilled to find they can still feel good about their beverage purchases, even in an economy like this,” Kar said.

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