Calling it “a dream more than 30 years in the making,” Starbucks will finally open their first cafe in Italy in 2017. Citing CEO Howard Schultz’ travels in Italy as a formative inspiration for the company, Starbucks announced a location in Milan. Starbucks had been around as a whole-bean coffee seller before Schultz’ trip to Milan back in 1983, but it was that trip that prompted Schultz to push for introducing espresso drinks in the United States, a gamble that has paid staggering dividends.
Starbucks is coming to Italy “with humility and respect” — it is the birthplace of the espresso, after all. While Starbucks will certainly be banking on tourist money coming in from the Milan location, convincing Italians to give them a shot is going to be a challenge they’ll have to face. Starbucks hasn’t had the kind of international success that they’ve had in the United States, and Italy certainly won’t be any easier of a puzzle to solve.
It’s not an insurmountable challenge. While there certainly will be more than a few Italians who eye Starbucks with wariness or hostility toward cultural imperialism, I strongly suspect there will be more people on Twitter talking about how mad Italians are than there will be Italians actually mad about Starbucks’ impending arrival. While the espresso bar — where coffee drinkers stand for a few minutes while drinking straight shots of espresso — is most commonly associated with Italian coffee culture, sit-down cafes are by no means unheard of. As long as the place has good espresso, there will be a place for it.
It’s become cool to call Starbucks coffee bad (in the same way it’s cool to make fun of Coldplay), and to an extent, there’s a point there — Starbucks espresso drinks are usually not as strong as you’d find elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with the beans, though, and Starbucks isn’t beholden to one recipe — Milan Starbucks probably won’t be serving the same cappuccinos as Seattle Starbucks. The coffee giant surely isn’t unaware of Italian preferences, and I’m sure they’ll do their best to please — hence the whole humility and respect thing.
They’d be wise to do so, anyway, because if they fail to connect with Italian taste buds they won’t be in Milan for very long. Competition will be brutal, and it’s going to be very difficult for Starbucks to get away with charging premium prices. Whatever happens, it’ll be fascinating to see what Starbucks does as a plucky upstart instead of a dominating giant.