Starbucks Opens First Pickup-Only Airport Location

The times they are a-changin', and many modern foodies are living in the fast lane — which means quickly running into their local Starbucks to grab a coffee rather than sitting down. To meet the demand, Starbucks is launching its first-ever airport-based pickup-only concept, in partnership with Airport hospitality group OTG. It is located in Terminal E of the George Bush International Airport in Houston, and it will only accept orders through the Starbucks mobile app. To ease customers into the process, the store will be outfitted with a screen providing instructions on how to order. The concept totally eliminates having to wait in line: The app will alert foodies when their order is ready and they can simply walk over and grab it.

Starbucks first announced plans to focus on efficiency by opening more pick-up locations via an official statement in September 2022, explaining, "[W]e are enabling our stores to handle even more capacity, while significantly reducing the effort required from our partners" so they can focus on the product. According to CFO Rachel Ruggeri, 70% of Starbucks' 9,300 U.S. stores are currently drive-thrus that are more profitable for the company than sit-down cafes. Looking forward, Starbucks plans to open 2,000 new net U.S. stores by 2025 — and if this initial airport concept is a success, the chain might expand the pickup-only model to other airports nationwide. It already opened a pickup-only location in Manhattan in 2019, and the coffee giant has announced two more scheduled to open this fall.

The future of online ordering

As the global digital marketplace grows, mobile orders have taken on a greater presence across the fast food sector. In late 2022, McDonald's began testing drive-thrus constructed with designated "order ahead" lanes for people picking up mobile orders. As of July 2023, Starbucks has 75 million 90-day active rewards members worldwide, equalling 25% growth from Q3. Combined, mobile-order-and-pay, drive-thru, and delivery accounts for a whopping 75% of Starbucks' revenue, demonstrating a marked shift away from in-person ordering. The Starbucks app had a whopping 31.2 million users as of 2021 — for comparison, Apple Pay had 43.9 million.

The new pickup-only airport Starbucks will have a window that allows customers to watch the baristas as they prepare orders. It evokes the see-through kitchens in mob hangout restaurants like Bamonte's in Brooklyn, where diners could observe whether their food was about to be poisoned. But, it also spurs a larger conversation about eliminating human interaction in the fast food sphere.

AI drive-thrus have already begun cropping up around the U.S. with robotic systems taking orders and keeping employees tucked away in the back to prepare the food. Fast food as a whole seems to be transitioning away from actual employees taking customer orders, and this new pickup-only airport concept could be a large continuation of this movement, especially considering Starbucks' prominent position as an industry leader with high visibility.