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    Michigan Meets the McLatte

    McDonald's joins specialty coffee battle by rolling out its cafe concept statewide.

    DETROIT -- McDonald's is taking a major step toward a possible rollout of McCafe -- its new line of cappuccinos, lattes and mochas -- by making the drinks available statewide in Michigan beginning this week, the Detroit Free Press reported.

    “We're the only ones in the country to have it," said John Betts, vice president and general manager for McDonald's Michigan region, which also served as the country's first statewide test market for McDonald's premium coffees two years ago.

    The fast food giant quietly began installing the expensive, Swiss-made drink-making equipment last October and will put them in all 531 of its Michigan stores by this week. McDonald's will then have more outlets selling lattes and the like in Michigan than Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Dunkin' Donuts, Panera Bread, Beaner's, Coffee Beanery and Caribou Coffee combined, according to the newspaper report.

    The drinks, already in many metro Detroit stores, include plain, vanilla and caramel cappuccinos; hot and iced mochas; and hot and iced lattes in plain, vanilla or caramel flavors. Most are offered in small, medium and large (12-, 16- and 20-ounce) sizes.

    What the company learns from its statewide test will help it fine-tune everything about the product from the types of milk it offers to its advertising strategies, Betts said. But some of the larger questions -- whether McBaristas, as the company calls them, can turn out quality cappuccinos, and whether espresso beverages have shed their elitist origins and been embraced by the masses -- have been answered: Yes, and yes, he said.

    "We tend to associate these drinks with certain brands or lifestyles or income levels," Betts told the Detroit Free Press. "But we're finding that consumers are very, very aware of this product and they're thrilled to have it. And they're thrilled that because of our size, we can offer it at a little bit lower price point -- and at the speed of McDonald's."

    Speedy service is crucial because so many fast-food sales, especially during the breakfast rush, are transacted at the drive-through by customers who don't want to waste time parking and going inside. McBaristas are able to produce a drink made to customer specifications in 40 to 45 seconds because of the highly-automated equipment.

    The machine measures out the correct amount of coffee beans for each individual drink and then grinds and brews them under pressure with 2 percent or skim milk. It has an option to create a foamy milk top for the drinks, and can add extra espresso if the customer wants a stronger flavor. Syrups also are optional, the newspaper reported.

    McDonald's prices run about 30 to 50 cents a drink lower than Starbucks' drinks of equal size. Its lattes and cappuccinos are $1.99, $2.49 and $2.99; Starbucks' are $2.45, $3 and $3.30.

    The fast-feeder also may add smoothies to the menu at its U.S. restaurants, The Associated Press reported. Ralph Alvarez, president and chief operating officer of McDonald's Corp., said the company is exploring smoothies and other drinks as it seeks "destination beverages" to bring new customers to its restaurants.

    "Our beverages have really been complementary to a sandwich purchase," he said at a recent conference. "That's the space we offer it in. So we are going after destination beverages that attract visits from customers to McDonald's throughout the day."

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