The Healthiest Food at Starbucks Is Hiding in the Checkout Aisle

Photo: Getty Images/filadendron
Starbucks makes headlines (and major dollars) for its colorful seasonal drinks and super sweet frappuccinos. But for those of you trying to game the system to make your go-to order a little bit healthier (ahem, off-the-menu drinks), I have news for you. The healthiest part of the store isn't on the menu board at all. It's right under your nose in the checkout line. The cooler is stocked with Spindrift (one of the cleanest sparkling water brands there is), Evolution Fresh organic cold-pressed juices, Siggi's yogurt, and Perfect Snacks protein bars. Framing the long lines are bags of Hippeas chickpea puffs, Emmy's Organics vegan cookies, and Peter Rabbit Organics fiber-rich squeeze packs.

Basically, if you want to take a temperature check as to what snack is going to be a BFD within the next year, all you need to do is visit a Starbucks. The coffee chain started championing small, local brands back in 2015 with the launch of their Retail Brand Partnerships arm, a team of employees whose job it was to seek out innovative brands to sell in the stores. “If we can surprise and delight our customers and also provide a pathway for small business, it’s a win-win situation,” Mesh Gelman, vice president of Retail Brand Partnerships, said in a press release about the program. (A representative for Starbucks declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The chain started tailoring its cafes to feel, well, less like a chain, by incorporating local brands into its various locations. New York locations started stocking local favorite Bantam Bagels, down in Georgia you could find cheese straws (a Southern specialty), and Washington D.C. locations sold baked goods made by veterans. Meanwhile, members of the Retail Brand Partnership teams also sought out brands to take chances on nationwide.

"We're a smaller, home-grown brand, and to have people recognize us from seeing our product at Starbucks is huge." —Samantha Abrams, co-founder of Emmy's Organics

Emmy's Organics co-founder Samantha Abrams connected with Starbucks at a trade show a few years ago. Now, her products are in 7,500 Starbucks cafes across the country—a big win for the Ithaca, New York-based company. "Being in Starbucks has been a wonderful opportunity for us," Abrams says. "We're a smaller, home-grown brand, and to have people recognize us from seeing our product at Starbucks is huge. Even if someone doesn’t buy our product, they often see it in the coffee line, and that makes a big impact." Considering that every Starbucks location is projected to hit 750 customers per day by 2020, being selected as a brand partner is a massive exposure opportunity that can potentially put small brands like Emmy's on the map.

Brands sometimes use a potential collaboration with Starbucks as an opportunity to test if their business can support national distribution. That was the case for Perfect Bar, says Leigh Keith, the president and co-founder of the brand. Starbucks came to the brand looking for a cleaner protein bar; Keith says it "opened the conversation to test out distribution with the opportunity to expand nationwide." And that test paid off big time. "It's been incredible for Perfect Snacks, as the stores get approximately 3 million impressions on a weekly basis. In a limited-SKU store environment like Starbucks—where you have only a few branded items in the fridge—the distribution goes a long way in growing brand awareness and trial."

Even larger brands see an opportunity to take their offerings to the next level through a Starbucks partnership. Justin's founder Justin Gold sent nut butter cups directly to the corporate offices in the hopes of getting the brand's attention. "Luckily, they found their way to the right person. Through our partnership with them, we’ve been able to create some unique snack options and pairings over the years," Gold says, adding that Justin's squeeze packs are now part of Starbucks' Bistro Boxes. Like Abrams, Gold says that being in Starbucks has given them a new way for consumers to discover their brand.

Then there are the healthy snacks Starbucks execs find on their own. "Siggi [Hilmarsson, the founder] and [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz met in 2012 and kept in touch," says Heidi Krauss, Siggi's chief marketing officer. "In 2016, Starbucks asked Siggi’s if we would be open to developing a drink with all family appeal, and offer existing single-serve yogurt for their stores. We launched the eight-ounce whole milk drink there ahead of other retailers, which was an exciting way to build trial and awareness."

It's clear—and not surprising—that Starbucks has a lot of power in helping turn a smaller brand into one widely recognized (and bought) by consumers across the country. Maybe one day, the healthy brands we love—like Oatly, Elmhurst, and Navitas, will make their way into the actual drinks. A girl can dream.

Here's what Lady Gaga orders when she goes to Starbucks. And this is the verdict on how healthy their almond milk is.

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