Craft coffee. Draft coffee. Fast coffee.
Walmart stores near Dallas and Fort Worth are getting an extra dose of all three with a new java shop called LiftOff Coffee and Tea.
LiftOff has several hallmarks of coffee cool, which makes it all the more interesting that it's partnered with Walmart to launch exclusively inside its big-box stores — not as a stand-alone coffee shop. So far, LiftOff coffee counters are open inside Walmarts in Mansfield and Garland, with shops in Gainesville, Rockwall, Bedford and Carrollton expected to open later.
While it might seem like Walmart getting into the coffee game makes it more competitive with Target, which has held a partnership with Starbucks since 1999, a Walmart spokeswoman wouldn't go there: "We're always looking to new ways to improve our local customers shopping experience," Walmart spokeswoman Erin Hulliberger said via email. "We also work with other local and national coffee chains in other Walmart stores."
For Dallas-area shoppers, LiftOff's debut inside a Walmart seems to signal so much more: That coffee is nearly everywhere. That commercial coffee doesn't always mean Starbucks. And that Walmart is trying to stay current.
The most intriguing part of LiftOff's operation is that all of its coffee is served on draft. There's no espresso machine; the barebones counter features a few spigots that look like beer taps that pour black-colored coffee extract. The coffee is roasted in Pasadena, Calif., LiftOff CEO Steve Chang explains, and then is turned into an extract that is similar in concentration to espresso.
To make hot coffee, they pull a shot of coffee extract, then add hot water. To make a latte, they pull a shot of coffee extract, then add steamed milk and foam. LiftOff employees — who do not work at Walmart; they work directly for the coffee company — will even add latte art if they've developed the skill.
Chang believes the coffee extract offers a more consistent product "without compromising quality," he says. "One of the things I don't like about a coffee shop is, with different baristas, you can get a different cup of coffee."
If Chang's teams can keep the coffee consistent, and if customers order enough of it, he hopes to expand to about 10 coffee shops inside Walmarts in D-FW. Then they'll reassess, though Chang is hopeful, saying "the amount of people who drink coffee in America is tremendous. Coffee crosses many different cultures, ages and genders."
Walmart's spokeswoman wrote that it's "too soon to say whether the concept will expand beyond Dallas."
Beyond the craft-draft thing, Chang says coffee served to Walmart customers also needs to be fast.
"In our previous coffee concepts we've had, what took up the longest time wasn't the drink preparation, it was the ordering process," Chang says. "You can hear the person in front of you asking four to five questions, asking, 'What's this drink, that drink?' ... Now it's your turn and you have to go through that same process."
To speed it up — since most customers will be just entering the store, and possibly in a hurry — LiftOff has a 3-2-1 ordering system. Then, "liftoff." Get it?
3: Choose hot, iced or frozen, and size of the drink.
2: Are you drinking coffee or tea?
1: Pick your milk and/or syrup.
Chang hopes most coffee or tea drinks are handed over just as a customer is finished paying. While there's a counter to lean against, LiftOff doesn't offer tables and chairs to sit and stay a while.
He says D-FW was specifically picked to test whether LiftOff will rise up.
"Dallas is a very good representation of the cross-section of America. It's a very diverse community," he says. "We wanted to get a feel for how we would be accepted, and Dallas became an ideal place for us to test that idea."