Brewer, new drinks to headline Starbucks meeting

LOS ANGELES, March 21 Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:44am EDT

LOS ANGELES, March 21 (Reuters) - New products aimed at expanding Starbucks Corp's reach into the home, the grocery aisle and new drink categories were expected to take center stage at the world's biggest coffee chain's annual shareholder meeting in Seattle on Wednesday.

Starbucks returned to profit growth in 2010 after a two-year restructuring that involved slashing costs and closing nearly 1,000 cafes around the world.

The 40-year-old company, which has seen shares rise more than 50 percent in the past year, plans to keep growing sales and profit by introducing new products and being one step ahead of rivals like Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's.

Earlier this month Starbucks announced plans to roll out its own single-cup home brewer called Verismo, ending more than a year of speculation. Analysts expected executives to show off the machine, which will go on sale in time for the winter holidays, at the gathering.

Verismo could derail plans by Nestle to increase U.S. sales of its Nespresso machine, the George Clooney-marketed home brewing system that leads in Europe and around the world.

It also is seen as a direct competitor to Keurig machines, the most popular U.S. one-cup brewers, sold by Starbucks partner Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

Single-serve brewers, which can range from $50-$800, make fresh cups of coffee, or even barista-worthy espresso drinks, in seconds. The single-cup category is small compared with the overall coffee sector, but growing rapidly.

Starbucks representatives declined to comment on plans for the meeting.

The company has also been quietly rolling out a new line of sparkling, ready-to-drink "Refreshers" in grocery stores.

The fruit-flavored drinks, which target the 'energy' category that includes products such as Red Bull and Rockstar, are made with a flavor-neutral extract of green, unroasted coffee. Starbucks has said the drinks pack less caffeine kick than coffee drinks made from roasted beans.

More than a year ago, Starbucks tested two made-to-order Refreshers iced drinks in its stores -- very berry hibiscus and cool lime -- and some analysts speculated those could be added to cafe menus as well.

Starbucks also is expanding a test of beer and wine sales in its cafes this year and making its biggest push yet into the $50 billion health food sector.

It opened the first store in its new Evolution Fresh juice bar chain on Monday. That store serves fresh fruit and vegetable juices as well as meals.

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