Can Starbucks succeed in Italy?

A coffee bar in MilanImage copyright
MariaGrazia Moncada

A few days ago, Starbucks announced it would be opening its first branch in Italy, the country which inspired its founder, Howard Schultz, to set up the chain in the first place. It will open in Milan in early 2017- but can it work? Dany Mitzman in Bologna thinks it can.

I have always been amazed and amused by the number of variations you can have on a simple caffe.

A caffe in Italy is always an espresso. A cappuccino is seen as something completely different – a breakfast drink no normal person would want after about 11am. But there is almost as much variety in the Italian espresso as in the Starbucks range of coffee-based drinks.

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You can have it macchiato – stained with milk; corretto – with a dash of grappa; lungo – with a bit more liquid in the cup; or ristretto – super-concentrated.

When I go out for lunch with friends here, I always feel the coffee order must strain the patience of the waiter or waitress. A decaffeinated macchiato with cold milk, a regular espresso with frothed milk, a caffe molto ristretto… All extracted from the same machine and served in the same little cup, but in infinite varieties.

Interestingly, in Italian you don’t “drink” coffee, you “take” it – like a dose of medicine – perhaps because it’s so small.

And Italians most often have it standing at the bar rather than sitting at a table (where it may cost two or three times as much). If wine is the national drink, coffee punctuates the day – the mid-morning comma, the full-stop at the end of a meal.

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MariaGrazia Moncada

“We are coffee snobs,” says psychologist Paolo Vergnani, who drinks 10 espressos per day.

“When people come back from a trip abroad, the question is, ‘How was the coffee?’ and usually the answer is, of course, ‘Awful.'”

For Paolo, the coffee served in Italian bars and the half-litre takeaway hot beverages in a cardboard cup with plastic lid bear no resemblance to each other.

Dare I ask what he thinks of the American model?

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Image caption

Howard Schultz was inspired to found Starbucks after a visit to Milan 33 years ago

“I think it’s just a way to keep your hands warm!” he says.

Despite this, Paolo says there is room for Starbucks in Italy.

“There are many places trying to do something like Starbucks. The style is absolutely the same – wi-fi, even the architecture is more or less the same. I think this can be appreciated by young Italians.”

He thinks the reason is that it makes them feel more cosmopolitan and globally connected, especially those who have travelled. “It’s a way to remember ‘I was in New York.'”

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