Retailers and restaurateurs tend toward one of two choices when recession strikes:

  1. Lower prices to maintain traffic and move product.
  2. Become different enough to warrant a fair price premium.

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) appears to be opting for the latter. The coffeehouse made famous by thick, sugary, caffeinated drinks and not-terribly-healthy baked goods is asking patrons whether they'd buy gluten-free snacks if offered the choice.

"After enjoying our tasty holiday treats, we are ready to jump into the New Year, full of fresh ideas. One popular idea is for Starbucks to offer more gluten-free options," reads a post at the company's Ideas in Action blog. "We've started doing some operational testing in a select number of our stores and the baristas & customers who participated were psyched about the idea. One barista shared, 'Out of all the tests we've done, this one feels like we're doing the most for the customer!'"

Probably true, to judge by the more than 400 responses to the post. Most were unwaveringly positive. "This is wonderful news! I am a Starbucks coffee junkie! I also have celiac disease," wrote a respondent nicknamed Ursi. (Gluten can cause serious health problems for those with celiac disease.)

This poster is not alone. Researchers at the University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Center estimate that 1% of the population is afflicted, and that 12 million Americans suffer from symptomatically similar but genetically different food allergies. I can testify to that; my eldest child suffers from allergies and celiac.

And it affects the way my wife shops at Starbucks. "It would be such a treat to stop by to grab a coffee for myself and get a cookie or something like it for him," she wrote in response to the post.

There's more than goodwill at work here. (Although Starbucks could use some PR help about now.) Gluten-free foods are growing in popularity, to the point where Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFMI) is no longer the only option. Kroger (NYSE:KR) has a gluten-free guide at its corporate website, and Safeway (NYSE:SWY) gets high marks from advice-givers at the discussion boards, for example.

Billions are at stake. says the gluten-free food and beverage market is growing by 25% annually and will be worth $1.7 billion next year. If those estimates are even close to correct, Starbucks is smart to act before Peet's (NASDAQ:PEET) and Caribou Coffee do.

And if they're not? So be it. Once a hyperactive highflier, today's Starbucks is like me before my morning jolt of caffeine -- half-asleep, unable to move much. A gluten-free menu could be the shot of espresso this business needs.

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