Coffee shop, contained

A drive-through in the Denver suburbs made out of repurposed lumber and shipping containers

In 2008 Starbucks’ chief creative officer, Arthur Rubinfeld, was asked to reimagine its retail spaces, the first major overhaul since 2003. Back then Starbucks’ design team based its coffeehouse aesthetic on “the alchemy of coffee” — with color palettes themed around roast, steam, water, and air.

A tour with Rubinfeld through Seattle showcases the new approach: A wall in the café on Amazon’s corporate campus is constructed out of used bicycle tire tubes; at the University Village shopping center, chalkboards came from an old school. And now Starbucks is rolling out a store format that takes Rubinfeld’s repurposing principles further — with store structures made from old shipping containers. The initiative is part of the company’s greater push into drive-throughs, an area CEO Howard Schultz has highlighted as a key growth opportunity. Some 60% of all new U.S. stores that Starbucks (No. 208 on the Fortune 500) has planned for the next five years will be drive-throughs. While the company won’t say how many it will build from shipping containers, Rubinfeld envisions hundreds.

Some of the container locations will be what Starbucks is calling micro drive-throughs. At just about 380 square feet, the micros will be among the smallest Starbucks sites in existence. The tiny footprint lets the company enter high-traffic locations previously out of reach. Starbucks’ other container format — one stacked on top of the other — will provide drive-through and walk-up service. These “hammerheads,” in Starbucks parlance, are about 550 square feet. Portland will get a container hammerhead later this month on a main bicycling thoroughfare, so it will have a walk-up window, bike racks, and a big patio for all the walkers and bikers. The design of each store is meant to reflect its surroundings.

The first container store opened in Seattle, the company’s home, in 2011. (Denver’s suburbs got the second, in September 2012.) Located on an industrial stretch by Boeing airfield, the Seattle thoroughfare sees 24,000 cars on an average weekday. “These stores are allowing us to fill in a market where we have multiple stores already,” Rubinfeld says.

Going forward, Starbucks has partnered with companies like SG Blocks (SGBX), which converts shipping containers. Starbucks’ long-term goal is to create store modules that its designers can select based on the location, including the appropriate add-ons (bathroom, patio, etc.). Once constructed and delivered, the container-turned-drive-through can be operating in about a week. All are being built to LEED certification. The coffeehouse, always a place for conversation, has become a conversation piece.

This story is from the May 20, 2013 issue of Fortune.

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