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Starbucks Is Coming to Italy — But Success Could Be a Tall Order

The world's biggest coffee chain is opening its first store in the land of the world's biggest coffee snobs, and reaction runs the spectrum from appalled to sort of cool with it.

by Alberto Riva
Mar 2 2016, 8:05pm

Un panneau Starbucks à New York, 16 juin 2014. Photo par Justin Lane / EPA

Starbucks is opening its first-ever store in Italy, and the news has become the story of the week in the land of espresso.

The world's biggest coffee company announced on Monday that it would begin operating in Italy next year, starting with a shop in Milan. By Wednesday, the second auto-complete on Twitter when typing "Starbucks" in the search field was "Starbucks Italy."

Unsurprisingly, not all of the buzz is positive. American brands that have colonized the world such as Starbucks, which has some 24,000 stores located around the globe, tend to elicit strong emotions in Europe. It's no coincidence that anarchist protesters in many European cities direct their fury at McDonald's, which they regard as a symbol of imperialist globalization.

Even Italians who aren't window-smashing anarchists aren't inclined to see the Seattle-based company favorably.

"I really don't like Starbucks as a brand because of their growth policies, which are too aggressive in my opinion," Federica Cherubini, a 32-year old Italian journalist and researcher who lives in London, said.

When the country's biggest newspaper, Corriere della Sera, carried the story of Starbucks' impending arrival, some readers didn't hide their feelings about it.

"If Mr. [Schultz] believes that Italians like what he calls coffee, I think he's really wrong," wrote one commenter, referring to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. "I think there are precious few beverages in the world worse than Starbucks coffee. It's truly undrinkable," wrote another. 

Schultz was careful to point out in several interviews with Italian media that he's not coming to Milan to colonize the market and offer the same product one would find at other Starbucks locations. The company is taking pains to note that it's going to Italy, the internationally acclaimed world champion of great coffee, with "humility and respect." This is after all where coffee first landed in the Western world, brought by traders in the 16th century, when it was already rooted in Africa and the Middle East. (Starbucks is there, too.)

In fact, Milan is where Schultz often says he discovered, during a visit in 1983, the idea that coffee should be a social ritual. After building his $19 billion global empire on that idea, he's going back to where it originated, but cautiously: Starbucks will license its brand to Percassi, an Italian company involved in retail and e-commerce which previously partnered with Victoria's Secret and Zara to help them launch in Italy. By contrast, 82 percent of Starbucks' Europe, Middle East and Africa stores are company-owned.

Other stores may follow in Verona and Venice, according to a Schultz interview with Corriere della Sera.

But is Italy ready for Venti, Grande Latte, and Frappuccino? (Starbucks says it doesn't yet know if it will keep its Italian, or Italian-sounding, names when it opens there. It also says it plans to grow in Italy "over time," a formulation that may indicate it's expecting to lose money for a while.)

On the face of it, landing in Italy is a daring bet that borders on the insane: Starbucks will be outgunned by the traditional Italian bar caffè 172,000 to one, according to data from the trade association FIPE. Competing with an abundance of corner spots where the guy behind the bar knows his regulars by name and can banter like a pro about the soccer team they root for will be a daunting challenge.

Starbucks spokesperson Linda Mills said in an email that company will make headway by bringing its "own unique offer to the Italian consumer: a third place between home and work to take time and enjoy a perfectly crafted cup of coffee," adding that the company will "tailor [its] offerings to the Italian customer."

What Starbucks might end up being in Italy, though, isn't a direct competitor to the caffè but a niche offering tailored to people who want something other than an espresso — the kind of customer who orders an americano, a bigger and generally less potent drink rarely seen in traditional bars.

"You won't find a good americano in an Italian bar, because it's basically normal coffee with some water added to it," said Andrea Cova, the 29-year-old founder and owner of high-end food delivery company Soul Kitchen. "American coffee to take away will still be their number one product."

Starbucks might find that its main competition is an Italian mini-chain called Arnold Coffee, which already has three stores in Milan and one in Florence, billing itself on its Italian website as "The American Coffee Experience" (in English, no less). Modeled after Starbucks — down to a logo bearing a similar typeface — Arnold promises to "transport you across the Atlantic," a proposition that Cova says is successful, at least judging by the morning rush of customers in a downtown Milan store. "At 7am, it's more crowded than traditional bars," he said.

That whiff of the American exotic could also be a selling point for the Seattle-based chain.

"The brand is already famous," Irene Pozzebon, 21, who studies Nutritional Sciences at the University of Pavia, said. "Young people go to Starbucks just because it's Starbucks."

Beyond that constituency, the americano way of coffee might lack mass appeal. A giant paper cup of scalding liquid to be sipped over half an hour is not something often seen in an Italian's hands — unless it's on a trip to the United States, where a visit to Starbucks is considered part of the experience, like the Grand Canyon or a Manhattan museum.

Sipping coffee in a business meeting isn't really done in Italy; some may even see it as weird, if not downright rude. A coffee break at work is a totally different animal for Italians: For example, you'll see a group of government workers in Rome ducking out of the office for the classic cappuccino break at 11am (and not a minute later, because cappuccino after 11 would be a faux pas worthy of a Birkenstocks-and-socks German tourist.) Convincing them to take a venti cup back to work instead may be a, uhm, tall order.

Price is another factor that could steer Starbucks in Italy towards the high end.

The average price of an espresso is 0.94 euros in Italy, or about one US dollar, according to a trade association, while cappuccino goes for 1.27 euros. Starbucks hasn't disclosed its Italian prices yet, but according to a 2013 analysis by the Wall Street Journal, its drinks are comparatively expensive in countries that use the euro.

"I tried Starbucks in Sweden. Their prices, if compared to those of a traditional caffè, are way too high," Pozzebon said, suggesting it will be hard for the Americans to compete on price.

But among young urban Italians, that may not be a big issue.

"Of course, the real Italian coffee is a different thing. But the opening of Starbucks here could be a positive fact," said Mauro Crippa, a 23-year-old student of Economics and Finance at Milan's Statale University. "Being so different from our tradition, it could add a different and interesting twist to it."

Follow Alberto Riva on Twitter: @AlbertoRiva

VICE News' Valerio Bassan and Matteo Civillini contributed reporting for this story. 

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