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By JOE BEL BRUNO Staff Reporter

Starbucks Corp. is taking the phrase "cup of joe to go" very seriously.

The Seattle-based chain has opened its first drive-through service in Southern California at a newly opened store on the Sunset Strip.

Only a few independant coffee houses offer drive-through service to varying success in Los Angeles County. In fact, this marks one of only a handful of motorist-friendly locations in the 1,186-store Starbucks chain.

It's the latest offering served up by Starbucks in the java wars waged against competitors such as Peet's Coffee & Tea, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and scores of mom-and-pop operations. The new service is a test that Starbucks might duplicate at other locations, a spokesman said.

"This is all about convenience serving our customers in an efficient manner," Starbucks spokesman Chris Gimble said about the store, located at 8363 Sunset Blvd. "This is something that is being tested out, and its success could mean opening more like it."

But there might be something standing in the way of serving double lattes and mocha Frappuccinos to morning commuters: the City of West Hollywood.

It has a zoning ordinance barring drive-throughs (although variances can be granted).

"We've gotten complaints about it, and are currently investigating if they are breaking the law," said associate city planner Jennifer Davis.

The location, she said, can only serve walk-up customers at the window. But employees have been serving customers as they pull up by car.

Gimble said Starbucks considers the service window a "walkup," but that if motorists drive up, they will be served.

But unlike normal drive-throughs, the West Hollywood location does not have a speaker system or barriers to separate cars for pedestrians.

The chain is now preparing to seek a variance if the city says the window is in violation, Gimble said.

Last week, bleary-eyed motorists lined up behind the drive-through window to grab their morning fix of caffeine.

"I couldn't function this morning," said Gloria Mathers, about the first work day after losing an hour with daylight-saving time. "This is fabulous. I can order my coffee and be back out on the road in no time flat."

Same goes for Donald Fitzgerald, who grabbed a cafe latte: "I'm not particular on where I get coffee but I do care about how fast I get what I want in a hurry. You bet I'll drive through here instead of parking my car to go somewhere else."

City business leaders say Starbucks stands a good chance of bending the rules.

"There has been evidence in the past that the city will look at these issues on a case-by-case level," said Don Savoie, executive director of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "I think the situation is fixable. The law was set up to protect residents from noisy drive-throughs, but there are no residents who live near the site."

Savoie pointed out that the city granted a McDonald's near the corner of La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard a similar variance to allow a drive-through.

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