Starbucks has hit the spiritual home of the espresso, opening its first branch in Italy in the form of a cavernous Milan cafe with a heated, marble-topped coffee counter, a mezzanine cocktail bar and a state-of-the-art, on-site roastery.
The US coffee giant said it was “the most beautiful Starbucks in the world”, housed in a 2,300 sq metre former post office in Piazza Cordusio, near the city’s cathedral. It was not intended to “teach people about coffee”, the firm said. “This is where coffee was born.”
Instead, the Seattle-based company’s chief design officer, Liz Muller, said Starbucks wanted to “bring a premium experience that’s different to what people in Italy are used to ... including different brewing techniques, and a space to stay longer, relax and enjoy”.
In Italy – where according to the Italian catering federation, FIPE, more than 6bn espressos are consumed every year – the morning or after-lunch ritual is mostly kept short, performed standing up in a small neighbourhood cafe and costs about a euro.
That may go some way to explaining why the chain, well established across Europe after opening its first branch in London in 1998, has repeatedly delayed its entry into the Italian market, originally planned for early last year.
Its outspoken former CEO, Howard Schultz, who stepped down in June amid talk of a possible White House run in 2020, said earlier this year that the company would approach Italy, its 78th global market, with “humility and respect, to show what we’ve learned ... I came to Milan as a young man, in 1983. My imagination was captured by Italian coffee.”
But the way even Italians drink their coffee is changing. While previously an espresso was “an opportunity to have an energy ‘shot’, consumers today increasingly care more about quality and the experience they can have”, market researcher Matteo Figura told Agence-France Presse, adding that 18- to 34-year-olds in particular had different tastes.
Starbucks said it had equipped the marble counter with heating so customers would not feel the chill on cold days, and hoped both the cocktail bar – Milanese office workers often meet colleagues after work for an aperitivo – and a 6.5 metre-high bronze cask, part of the roasting process, would prove attractions.
Cafe-owners nearby confessed they were both dubious and alarmed. “It remains to be seen if they’ll get a foothold in Italy,” said Alessandro Panzarino, who runs the Cafe Martini around the corner.
Panzarino told AFP he was certainly a little concerned, and expected to see an initial boom in trade at “this new colossus”, but added: “Then we will have to see if people get bored after a while – and are happy to spend so much.”
At least one committed Italian coffee drinker seemed unlikely to be won over. “I really don’t like Starbucks coffee,” said Simonme Dusi. “I like strong coffee, so absolutely no way to diluted coffee or variants like Frappuccino!”
Starbucks, which turned over $22.4bn last year from nearly 29,000 cafes, clinched its Italian deal with the help of Antonio Percassi, a former footballer responsible for bringing the Spanish clothing chain Zara and the US lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret to the country.
The coffee chain said it had more Milan stores in the pipeline, but declined to say how many.