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Starbucks closing -- for three hours

Joke all you want about the $4 cup of coffee, but what if you couldn’t get your daily fix of Starbucks?

That day is here.

The coffee house is closing all 7,100 company-owned U.S. stores for three hours today for remedial espresso training for its baristas. Luckily for caffeine fiends who can’t get the day started without a slug of Joe, the company’s at least waiting until 5:30 p.m. to close the doors.

Coffee drinkers may mope, but the company is in an even deeper funk.

Battling competition from fast food restaurants that have upgraded their coffee and are wooing financially battered consumers, Starbucks has been struggling to hold onto customers who once flocked to its hip vibe and hand-pulled espressos.

In the month since chief executive officer Howard Schultz unveiled plans for regaining the buzz, he’s discontinued warmed breakfast sandwiches (the smell interferes with the coffee aroma that customers love), slowed new store openings and reorganized operations.

And now, he’s closing stores for training that he promises will re-energize baristas and enhance the customer experience. Translation: Baristas will learn how to pull the perfect shot again and steam milk to order, not just press a button on the automatic espresso machine.

That’s OK with customer Madeline Reamy, who often uses the coffeehouse near her Midtown Atlanta office for morning business meetings. She’d like to see the company go even further to reach out to customers, by switching to all government-certified, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee - she’s executive director of Earth Share of Georgia, which promotes environmental causes. But mostly, she’d like to see it stay put on a block that has few other alternatives.

‘‘We certainly need Starbucks, that’s for sure,’’ Reamy says.

Will the art of espresso help Starbucks get the magic back? Look for an answer soon.

By summer, budget-conscious coffee lovers will be able to pick up less expensive espresso and capuccino at McDonald’s, which is rolling out an ambitious coffeehouse program at 14,000 U.S. locations. Meanwhile, Dunkin’ Donuts is making a play today for Starbucks customers by offering 99-cent small espresso-based drinks from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.

That’s a lot of java. Is there enough latte love to go around?

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