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Starbucks rolls out Via instant coffee

Bob Goldin, of Technomic Inc., said Starbucks faces hurdles with Via: price (nearly $1 a cup) and instant coffee’s image. Bob Goldin, of Technomic Inc., said Starbucks faces hurdles with Via: price (nearly $1 a cup) and instant coffee’s image. (Scott Olson/ Getty Images)
Associated Press / September 30, 2009

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SAN FRANCISCO - Caffeine addicts got their first taste of Starbucks Corp.’s newest offering as the coffee giant blanketed the nation with tens of thousands of free samples of its instant coffee, called Via, which comes in a cylindrical plastic sleeve and dissolves in a cup of water.

It debuted yesterday after months of preliminary test sales.

Starbucks handed out free samples of Via from coast to coast as part of its quest to convince customers that instant coffee can taste as good as brewed. Verdicts from an unscientific sampling of customers ranged from a tentative thumbs-up to serious skepticism.

“I can’t tell the difference,’’ said Margaret Vazquez, 39, who lined up to try a sample in San Francisco. “But that could be because it’s the first coffee I’ve had today.’’ Nearby, Shay Jariya, 40, and co-worker Peter Yerardi, 36, were less impressed. “I think it’s OK,’’ Jariya said. “If you’re going out to buy coffee, you want coffee, not a packet.’’

Backed by national television ads - a rarity for the company - and large-scale distribution to 1,500 sites other than its stores, the Via launch showed Starbucks is determined to own a stake in the market for instant coffee, worth $21 billion worldwide.

“We think there’s a big prize here,’’ CEO Howard Schultz said.