Starbucks’ New Airport Model: Potential Game Changer

by SharonKurheg

Starbucks. Either you love them or you hate them. Maybe you look forward to your daily iced caramel macchiato or your first pumpkin spiced latte or cranberry bliss bar of the season. Or you think they’re overrated, with overpriced coffee that tastes burnt. However you feel about Starbucks, your feelings are probably big. Very few people are ambivalent about Starbucks.

Fortunately for Starbucks, despite the haters ;-), they’re still a very popular brand. In fact, they’re the most popular coffee chain in the world; since their debut in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market in 1971, the company has grown to boast over 30,000 stores around the globe, and an annual revenue of $32.25 billion in 2022. About 9,300 of those stores are in the U.S. alone. Of those, about 70% are drive-thru, 29% are cafes and 1% are pickup only.

In 2009, Starbucks launched the Starbucks Card Mobile application and MyStarbucks app. With the app, customers could find out the location of nearby stores, and nutrition details, and there was even an interactive drink builder. Both of the apps were launched in the App Store, targeting a particular group of people.

Starbucks launched “Mobile Order & Pay” in 2015. The then-new system combined the company’s existing payment system with new online ordering features that let you order ahead, and then pick up your order at stores.

a group of cell phones with a green background

PC: Starbucks

Starbucks has thrived with the advent of mobile ordering. In fact, roughly 1 in 4 transactions are now placed via its app. The convenience of using the Starbucks app to order and pay for your food and drink ahead of time, and then just pick it up when you get to the location, is a huge time saver – which is especially important when you’re on your way to work.

Or…on your way to your gate? Until mid-2021, you couldn’t use mobile ordering at Starbucks airport locations. The reason for that was that Starbucks at airport locations are licensed, not company-owned. Since 1991, the airport locations have exclusively been operated by HMSHost, the huge nationwide airport concession company (they also operate airport-based Starbucks in Europe). So they had a huge say in decisions about the store offerings at airport locations.

However in February, 2020, HMSHost opted out of that exclusive arrangement.

Without that exclusivity, Starbucks has been able to do a little more experimenting, including having the freedom to offer mobile ordering at select airport locations. The first one, in June 2021, was at Washington Dulles International Airport. They’ve been quietly rolling out mobile ordering at more airport locations ever since. Within a few months of starting the program, mobile ordering was available at over 230 Starbucks locations across 70 airports, and it’s only grown since then.

However mobile ordering isn’t the be-all end-all.

Remember how we said before that 1% of Starbucks locations were pickup only? The chain opened its first pickup-only unit in New York City, in November 2019. It’s since grown to 54 locations in 19 states.

Here’s how Starbucks describes the model:

Your Coffee Run Made Easy

Starbucks® Pick Up is a new store exclusively designed for mobile orders and quick pick up without the wait.

How it Works


Open the Starbucks® app on your phone.


Choose your nearest Pick Up location and order.


Once the status board updates to Ready, grab your items and enjoy.

Questions about the Starbucks® Pick Up experience?
Find answers from our baristas–they’re here to help.

That model could work really well at some airport Starbucks locations. Think about it – without worrying about space required for the queue, display cases, shelves with non-food items such as souvenir mugs and cups, etc., they wouldn’t need nearly as large of a footprint.

Enter the first pickup-only Starbucks in an airport.

a group of people standing in front of a coffee shop

PC: Starbucks

QRS Magazine reports that in partnership with airport hospitality group OTG (Notice: not HMSHost), Starbucks will open its first airport-based pickup-only concept in Terminal E of the George Bush International Airport. The location will not accept walk-up orders, it’ll only take orders through the Starbucks app. When placing an order, customers can either enable location services or manually select IAH Terminal E to start the process. Then, when the order status updates and says their order is “ready,” customers can stop by to grab their items, and not have to stand in line to do so.

The pickup-only location features warm wood tones, green accents, and botanical art pieces representative of the brand’s design DNA and the coffee’s origin. There will also be an open view of employees crafting the products, as well as a screen that walks people through how to order.

a man and woman in a hotel

PC: Starbucks

2 more airport pick-up only locations will open at IAH later this fall; opening dates TBA.

I think Pickup Only locations at the airport would be awesome. They’d still have to have some “regular” locations because not every transaction (or customer) is app-friendly. But as a way to get more locations into smaller spaces, I think it’ll be a great addition to the brand.

Nearly all airport-location Starbucks I’ve ever seen have had queues up the yin-yang, especially during breakfast time. One of the Starbs at our hometown airport, Orlando International, just had a refurb that made it bigger. It’s helped a bit, but the queue is still mondo long. The fact that they started offering mobile ordering helped immensely.

Yet one of MCO’s terminals (Airside 3) still doesn’t have a Starbs. I’ve always assumed any time another store has closed, it wouldn’t be a good “fit” for a Starbucks location. But hey, if a Pick Up Only location could fit in there somewhere? I’d be one happy girl.

Work on that, m’OK, Starbucks? And have more locations offer Blonde Roast after 10:30 a.m. so I don’t have to feel bad by ordering a pour-over. 😉 Please and thank-you!

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


arun baheti September 25, 2023 - 5:17 pm

Smart. I think it was at SMF where (at least before COVID) some of the restaurants offered gate delivery… order your food and it shows up at the gate for you to take on the plane. Given the lines for coffee or food I would think about using this at least now and then.

dee September 26, 2023 - 2:11 pm

It is getting worse in some cities in Calif. They have rolled out this insane coffee cup loaner-return system,, You order and get a cup(hot or cold) with a qr code you finish the drink,,Open camera for QR code ad register it then you take it back to the store and put it in front of this robot like machine(that is usually broken) scan it and it opens up and takes it.. U sometimes then get a thank you and enter into a drawing for a gift card..lots of work for nothing


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