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Rivals brew specials, while Starbucks takes coffee break

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Associated Press / February 27, 2008

SEATTLE - As caffeine junkies looking for their evening fix were locked out of Starbucks during the company's three-hour nationwide training sessions yesterday, many didn't have to look farther than some competing cafe down the street for free or discounted cups of joe.

Canton-based Dunkin' Donuts proclaimed it "wants to ensure that no coffee lover is denied a delicious espresso-based beverage" when it said it was slashing the price of its small lattes, cappuccinos, and other coffee drinks to 99 cents for most of the day.

Spokeswoman Michelle King demurred when asked if it was a competitive jab at Starbucks Corp.

"We are offering this promotion . . . because there is an opportunity to reach a large number of coffee drinkers, as well as provide our own loyal customers with a great deal," King said in an e-mail.

Caffe Vita Coffee Roasting Co., a small chain with four shops in Seattle, planned to give away free espresso drinks while the world's largest gourmet coffee retailer shut its doors.

McDonald's Corp., which has been trying to steal Starbucks customers by revamping its coffee menu, declined to comment on Starbucks' training effort and offered no special deals yesterday.

Nearly 7,100 company-operated Starbucks stores across the United States - all except the licensed shops in supermarkets, airports, malls, hotels, and the like - were to close at 5:30 p.m. local time so some 135,000 employees could go through about three hours of training.

Part back-to-basics tutorial, part pep rally, the teach-in aimed to reacquaint baristas with the art of pulling the perfect shot of espresso and steaming milk so the velvety foam that tops a latte has just the right thickness.

Starbucks switched to automatic espresso machines years ago, but it still takes skill to work them. Baristas have to adjust the grind to make sure a shot doesn't pour too quickly, making it watery, or too slowly, making it bitter.

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