I Really Wanted to Hate Italy's First Starbucks, But It Was Fantastic
I’m a regular Starbucks customer when I’m back home in America but I was convinced they could never do it here in what is truly the Mecca of coffee worship.
MILAN—I came here prepared to hate Starbucks’ new Milan store. After all, anyone who has lived in Italy for any length of time quickly learns that this country’s coffee culture is every bit as important as its art and historical offerings.
Just what’s so special about it is hard to define. Maybe it’s something as simple as the porcelain cups that are never too cold or too hot. Maybe it is the way it is served, with patrons standing up at the bar for a quick hit of caffeine. Or maybe it is more complex, like the intimate relationship one develops with a favorite barista who knows your name and somehow makes you feel like he’s made your espresso or cappuccino just slightly better than the guy’s standing next to you.
Make no mistake, I am a regular Starbucks customer when I’m back home in America. That’s precisely why I thought that there is just something so non-Starbucks about what coffee means in Italy. And while it is true that Starbucks has enjoyed success across the world, I was convinced they could never do it here in what is truly the Mecca of coffee worship.
So when news broke that Starbucks would finally be opening its long-awaited store in Milan on Friday, its first in Italy, it seemed that the only way to bear witness to what I assumed would be the greatest crime against coffee since cappuccino vending machines would be to see it for myself. There were two options available: the cut-the-line guided media tour where journalists were given sound-byte explanations by the store’s top brass, or standing in a line that wrapped all the way around the block.
The line was the right choice. I expected it to be filled with tourists who just “didn’t get” Italian coffee. And there are plenty of them across the country. They either want to be able to drink boiling hot liquid as they walk, or they don’t think a thimbleful of divine espresso could possibly offer the jolt they are used to at home.
But the line, which took about a half hour from the back to the front, was filled with Italians young and old, most taking selfies and laughing as if they were about to experience the best thing since, well, Italian coffee. I wanted to warn them they were in for sloshing hot liquid in take away cups.
I stood behind Mauro Rossetti, a manager with Italia Zuccheri, who brought his 22-year-old daughter Caterina, an international studies student in Milan. The father-daughter duo had been to many Starbucks around the world, and they had very different expectations of the one in Milan they were waiting to get into. Caterina was convinced Starbucks will never work in Italy. “Not with their concept,” said Caterina. “With a different concept, maybe. Italian people have another type of coffee idea, so if you are coming to Starbucks just to have espresso or cappuccino, it’s not the place for you.”
Her biggest problem was the price. “Just look at the prices. One coffee in any of the bars all over Milan is one euro, maybe 1.10 and cappuccino between one and two euro,” she says, referring to Milan’s 1,500 coffee bars already on the streets. “Here inside it is 1.80 for an espresso and four euro something for a cappuccino.”
Her father disagreed. “To me, it could work because it is a completely different concept to what we have in Italy for taking a coffee,” he says. “You don’t come here to quickly drink an espresso at the bar. You come here, you sit down, you have your WiFi and it’s just a place to stay and drink coffee or have something to eat. It’s a totally different concept.”
They are both right.
First, it must be noted that the new Milan store is a Starbucks Reserve Roastery, one of just three such exclusive stores worldwide. The others are in Seattle and Shanghai. That means they don’t sell the usual Starbucks products—no Frappuccino, no Pumpkin Lattes, and no double mocha anything. They sell classic Italian variations on local coffees, from a macchiato, which in Italian is a tiny espresso with a dash of milk, to a cappuccino which comes in only one size. Ever. The main choices are whether you want your coffee prepared with the “pour over” technique or “cold brew”—both of which are performed behind the bar.
The Milan store was, beyond any exaggeration, breathtaking. I had expected something of a cross between IKEA and a bad industrial warehouse with coffeehouse music, but instead it is set inside the first two floors of an old palazzo that originally housed a magnificent post office branch just a few blocks from Milan’s magnificent Duomo. The store covers 25,000 square feet of real estate, complete with 30-foot bar carved out of one perfect piece of Carrara marble. At the back of the space is an open loft mezzanine with an aperitivo bar, meant to entice stylish Milanese who have a habit sipping an after work drink most days of the week.
The centerpiece of the space is a massive green coffee roaster where specialists explain and demonstrate the subtle differences in color and shape of individual beans before showing how they go from raw to roasted. There is an outdoor terrace and plenty of intimate areas with Starbuck’s classic low tables, and loud open spaces with tall bar tables that were filled with young people soaking in the atmosphere and sucking up the free WiFi.
I was expecting chirpy young waiters trying to write Italian names like Patrizia and Ettore on green paper cups, but instead there was nothing but porcelain and funky metallic crockery and multilingual Italians.
There is a made-to-order arrogata gelateria in one corner that utilizes liquid nitrogen through a specialized technique, and a pizza-by-the slice bar with food prepared by Rocco Princi, a famous Italian breadmaker who has entered a partnership with Starbucks for this Italian endeavor. The only thing that was slightly reminiscent of a normal Starbucks store was the merchandise, of which there was plenty on sale displayed on tables throughout the store.
“The highly anticipated Milan Roastery is the crown jewel of Starbucks global retail footprint,” founder Howard Schultz said in a statement before the Milan store opened. “A place where Italian customers can come to discover the art and science of coffee in a breath-taking environment that is both an homage to the city of Milan and a celebration of everything Starbucks has learned about coffee in its 47-year history.”
Shultz, who was in Milan for the opening along with many of the company’s global management team, greeted customers and answered questions that ranged from banal to complex. Elegant Milanese women sipped espresso and a group of American exchange students expressed their disgust that their usual favorites weren’t available. “We waited in line for this?” Melanie Jones, an art history student on a semester abroad, said, clearly disgusted. “I can get this kind of coffee anywhere in Milan. I wanted a Chai Tea Latte. ”
Don't worry, that’s coming, too. After the success of the Milan opening, Starbucks plans to open several “real stores” across the country with the help of Percassi, a high end company that has had success with other foreign franchises including Victoria’s Secret, LEGO and Polo Ralph Lauren breaking into the finicky Italian market. Four of its traditional takeout joints are set to be up and running in Milan by year’s end, and stores in Florence and Rome will follow. It is yet to be seen how they will translate some of their trademark drinks. A “latte” in Italian is a glass of milk. A Starbucks’ “macchiato” is really nothing like a real one here, and you’d never find it with caramel over ice.
Down the street from the Milan Starbucks at the Cafe Dante, Italians stood at the bar drinking coffee the way Italians intended. I asked the barista Giuseppe if he was worried about the American competition down the street. “Not at all,” he said. “I can’t wait to try it myself. There is nothing at all the same as what they do and what we do. It’s like anything else, people will go there when they are in the mood for that kind of experience, but they will never stop coming here.”
I won’t be going to the regular Starbucks once they open—after all, I’ve got my regular coffee haunts where they know me by name, without writing it on my cup. But I will come back to the Reserve Roastery. And I won’t begrudge anyone who does go to any of the regular Starbucks in Italy. Part of what makes Italy’s coffee culture so special is that customers feel at home and know what to expect. While it seems unlikely Starbucks baristas will be able to develop the same personal first-name based relationships with locals that Italian baristas do, there is something to be said about the familiarity of a known entity, especially in a foreign country—even if that means drinking a Pumpkin Latte in Italy. That familiarity is surely what Shultz saw when he fell in love with Italy’s coffee culture 30 years ago in this very city that inspired the global phenomenon that Starbucks has become. And the store he just opened in Milan is proof he understands the difference between the two.