Starbucks has a secret...

The coffee company is opening new stores. This alone isn't really newsworthy; there was a time when the java giant was opening stores at a rate so alarming it was difficult to imagine not getting a venti double-shot caramel machiatto anywhere in the world. But now, as with us all, the mermaid is feeling the recession.

Last July the sun set on numerous café locations around the country, leading to a lot of questions about the company's future. New competitors like McDonald's and old foes like Dunkin' Donuts were stepping up their game, and clamoring for Starbucks' generous market share. Additionally, cost-weary consumers with visions of "acting locally" saw $4 lattés as an expense they could easily cut from their budget without hurting their local economy.

Couple this downshift with the always-looming ghost of Starbucks' image problems as a soulless corporation, and the monlithic institution could quite easily find itself in trouble...Trouble that only careful rebranding could resolve.

And how has 'Bucks chosen to face that rebrand? A line of new stores, "inspired by" Starbucks but otherwise branded completely separately from the parent company. The new stealth stores are called 15th Avenue E.

The shops have a more mom-and-pop feel to them, promise more live music, poetry, and you know... coffeehouse stuff. A decidedly back-to-basics approach for the company.

I, for one, think it's a good thing. Starbucks began in this genre of customer experience, and by re-embracing it they can assert themselves as THE place to get a good cup of joe in a relaxed atmosphere. Enough with the sandwiches and CDs--just make me a respectable, hand-steamed cappuccino. Artisanal and crafty is the next big thing the mind of today's middle-class consumer, and by appearing to embody that image (and backing it up with a big budget) the green apron has a good shot at continuing its dominance in both the market and cultural landscape.