Starbucks’ former CEO Howard Schultz credits the unique coffee culture he experienced on a 1983 trip to Milan with inspiring him to expand his company, which now has stores in over 70 locations around the globe. It might have been the inspiration for global domination, but Italy has never had a Starbucks store and, ever since rumours began in 2015, Italians have seemingly been overwhelmingly against the idea.
Part of the challenge for Starbucks is that Italian coffee culture is ritualistic, traditional and, generally speaking, unchanging. While other countries have embraced elaborate pumpkin-spiced concoctions, slowly sipped while taking advantage of the free wifi, Italy’s coffeehouses remain independent establishments catering to local crowds. Super-sized and sugar-laden drinks just aren’t on the menu; instead, punters drink shots of espresso and inexpensive cappuccini while standing at the bar. According to the International Coffee Council, only 0.6% of coffee consumed in Italy is drunk in chain coffee shops.
Italy is also resistant to the influx of foreign and big-name brands, preferring to champion homegrown companies instead (McDonalds, for example, has just 500 stores in Italy, the first of which opened in 1986, over a decade after the brand came to the UK). ‘Coffee in Italy’, a recent report by Euromonitor, notes that the biggest names in Italian coffee sales are all domestic – with the exception of McDonalds.
To help conquer the tricky Italian market, Starbucks has teamed up with entrepreneur and former footballer Antonio Percassi. His company, which was also responsible for successfully bringing Zara to the Italian market and launching Kiko Cosmetics, will own and operate the new Starbucks stores.
Howard Schultz, who stepped down as Starbucks CEO this year to concentrate on developing and expanding the brand’s Reserve Roasteries, claims the first stores will be ‘designed with painstaking detail and great respect for the Italian people and coffee culture’.
Located in Milan’s historic Palazzo delle Poste, Italy’s first outlet will indeed be a Roastery – a concept the company debuted in Seattle in 2014. It will feature premium, small-batch coffees roasted on site and served using a variety of brewing methods. A typical Italian bar, in comparison, uses just one type of machine to prepare a variety of coffees such as espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, caffè lungo and caffè ristretto.
While the company proclaims a love of Italian coffee culture, its choice of locations so far suggests it hasn’t forgotten about the spending power of the international visitor. Milan’s Palazzo delle Poste sits in Piazza Cordusio, one of the city’s busiest squares, while Rome’s outlets will be in Piazza di Spagna and Termini station – both bustling tourist hotspots.
The Italian café market is the biggest in the world, generating over $10 billion a year. At the same time, most of the coffee consumed by Italians is drunk at home, with out-of-home consumption failing from 30% in 1997 to 23% in 2011. In order to survive in the spiritual home of coffee, Starbucks has some tough challenges to face.