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European Business Starbucks arrives in Italy, but will it be a conquest or merely a brazen curiosity?

An employee prepares a coffee inside the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery flagship in downtown Milan, Italy, on Sept. 4, 2018.

STEFANO RELLANDINI/Reuters

For decades, it was a mark of pride among coffee-loving Italians that Starbucks, the American chain-store leviathan that served sugary, frothy concoctions disguised as coffee, had been unable to penetrate Italy. Italians could not stop McDonald’s and Burger King from invading their country and ransacking their cuisine. But they could stop Starbucks.

Italy’s traditional small-shop caffè culture – the pleasing clink of china cups, the laptop-free at-the-counter banter, the cheap, delicious espresso served quickly with a cheery buon giorno by a barista who knows your name – would prove impenetrable.

Or so they thought.

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Ever since I moved to Italy a decade ago, there were sporadic rumours that Starbucks – which opened is first European coffee shop in 1998, in London – was about to crack the Italian market. Doing so would fulfill Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’s dream of extending his global empire into the very country that had inspired him to roll out Starbucks as a coffee-house chain when he visited Milan in 1998.

By 2018, Starbucks was in 77 countries, but not Italy; Italy was the holy grail.

Each rumour proved false, except for the last one. By early this year, we all knew Starbucks was coming, and coming big. Fortunes were being spent to refurbish an elegant neoclassical building, formerly Milan’s main post office, near the city’s landmark Italian-Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, and La Scala opera house. Trucks were delivering vast quantities of marble, stone, copper tubing, steel beams and enormous bronze plating. Hundreds – hundreds! – of young Italians were being trained to make coffee “products” in a makeshift campus nearby. The evidence suggested that whatever was being created would not just be enormous – in typical American fashion – but possibly spectacular.

On Sept. 6, as a mob of Italians and tourists lined up outside, the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan, the first of its kind in Europe, opened its doors and immediately triggered a cultural sensation – and divide. Starbucks called it the “crown jewel” of its global retail spread of some 28,000 coffee shops. And spectacular it was, an enormous space on the flashy side of elegant, like nothing Italians had seen before. The next year or so will determine whether the once alien Starbucks concept will sweep the country or be relegated to curiosity status.

A staff member offers coffee to customers waiting at the entrance of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, in downtown Milan, Italy, on Sept. 7, 2018.

STEFANO RELLANDINI/Reuters

I visited the shop, if you can call an outlet covering 25,000 square feet a “shop,” in late November and was dazzled. At least I was at first, before I found it overwhelming, impersonal and crazy expensive. The coffee was good, but not so good to be worth several times the going rate elsewhere in Italy.

The place was packed and so big and buzzy as to be disorienting. It looked like a set from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory strewn with great hunks of Victorian machinery and pieces from a chemistry lab, though, over all, the design was oddly attractive, even charismatic. But how did you order a coffee in this sea of humanity?

Circling around for a few minutes, I took a seat at a long, curved marble bar. The marble was heated. The young man next to me, Gianluca di Mieri, a well-travelled and nicely dressed bathroom-products salesman from southern Italy, was waiting for his “reserve” coffee – coffee from small farmers’ lots in exotic parts of the planet. “This is such an experience, just amazing,” he told me. “I’ve been to other Starbucks, but they’re nothing special. I love how you can actually see how the coffee is being made. All that is missing is the actual plants.”

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He was referring the bean-to-cup system on full display. It was dominated by a huge bronze roasting cask, known as the Dancing Lady, that sat in the middle of the shop. It was almost 10 metres high and, theatrically, periodically rotates and unfolds, like a blossoming flower, to give patrons a view of the degassing phase of the bean roasting process. Nearby was the enormous roaster itself that spits out beans into a tray the size of a kids’ backyard swimming pool. Overhead were a maze of copper tubes and other industrial paraphernalia that delivered the ground beans to the baristas.

The coffee that Mr. di Mieri ordered was a reserve coffee made with the “siphon” method, which our barista, Giuliano Telesca, explained was a German invention from the 1830s. It’s a laborious process that involves two stacked globular glass chambers. Heating the lower chamber forces the water to rise into the upper chamber, where it is mixed with ground coffee. The coffee in the upper chamber is pulled back down to the lower chamber – the vacuum effect – minus the coffee grinds.

The result was unusually-smooth brewed coffee, but for a price: Mr. di Mieri paid €10 ($15.50), about double the cost of a typical cocktail in Italy.

A waiter serves cappuccini at the Starbucks store in Milan, Italy, on Sept. 4, 2108.

Luca Bruno/The Associated Press

I paid €7 for my “aged Sumatra” coffee. The cheapest cappuccino at the Starbucks Roastery was €4.50, four times what I pay at my local coffee bar in Rome. A simple espresso was €1.80, about double what I would pay elsewhere. My rather mediocre brioche was €2.20, more than twice what I pay in Rome.

But the prices weren’t putting off the customers. Over several visits in two days in Milan, I found the Roastery full or close to it. But the patrons generally were not young, and many were not Italian. The crowd was older and fairly wealthy.

Starbucks has already opened three more shops in Milan, one of which is at Malpensa airport, but they are regular small ones, virtually identical to the those found anywhere else on the planet. The one I visited was also packed, but this time with students who wanted to try coffees that would be considered milkshakes by most Italians, such as salted caramel brownie cream coffee. “I really like these options,” said Adam Diardiere, 19, a Canadian fashion student in Milan. “These drinks are more fun than you see at regular Italian caffès.”

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As for the big Starbucks Roastery, he said forget it: “That place is amazing but way too expensive.”




Now that Starbucks has established an Italian beachhead, the question is whether it will succeed in the country that considers itself the capital of coffee and the ultimate refinement of coffee culture. Or will its high prices and bizarre (by Italian standards) coffee options be dismissed as a joke?

Certainly, Starbucks took no chances with the Roastery. To give it marketing punch, it knew the design and concept had to be like nothing else in Italy, or Europe for that matter (Milan is only the third Roastery in the entire Starbucks portfolio). It spent big – it won’t reveal the cost of the investment, but it had to be in the millions – to create a piece of theatre that delivers coffee, pizza, cakes, cocktails, even a small selection of clothing and electronics, as if it were a caffeine-infused mall. Mr. Telesca, the barista who made our coffees, said Starbucks spent three months training him and almost 300 others. “It was eight hours a day, a job just to get the job,” he said.

An employee prepares a liquid nitrogen ice cream inside the Starbucks Reserve Roastery flagship in downtown Milan, Italy, on Sept. 4, 2018.

STEFANO RELLANDINI/Reuters

Milan was the obvious launch city for Starbucks in Italy. The country’s business capital, home to some of the world’s top fashion brands, such as Prada, Armani and Versace, is rich and international and used to high prices. It’s a city not hidebound by traditional Italian culture, even if it revels in its own cuisine and wine traditions.

My view is that Starbucks will, at best, meet with some success in the wealthy northern parts of Italy and might establish a few outposts in the touristy cities farther south, such as Florence. In the poor deep south, where youth unemployment is 50 per cent or more, I don’t think it stands a chance. The competition is just too cheap and too good. All Starbucks spokesman Danny Cowan will say is that, “The ambition is to open about 15 new stores each year for the next couple of years as we expand to additional cities in Italy.”

My view apparently is not in the minority. At the Roastery in Milan, I met a well-to-do insurance broker named Paolo Delucchi who lives in Rome and who was making his first visit to an Italian Starbucks.

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“I think this place will succeed just because it is so un-Italian,” he said. “You can come here with your computer, order your coffee and work for hours, like you can in New York and London. But in Rome, Starbucks would die. In Rome, people like a quick coffee at the bar, talk to the barista and leave. And the quality of the coffee and brioches in Rome is high.”

The owners and employees of Milan’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of traditional bars – there’s one or two virtually every 100 metres – don’t seem perturbed by Starbucks’ arrival. At Caffè Martini, a woody, elegant old caffè close to the Starbucks Roastery, manager Alessandro Panzarino said his business had not fallen off because of the rude arrival of the brazen American competitor. “We’re totally different markets,” he said. “Anyone who goes there [the Roastery] is going to a shopping mall. It’s not really a coffee shop. Italians like their coffee shops to be small, fast and full of their friends.”

I couldn’t agree more. When I got back to Rome, I was happy to slip back into my local caffè. I didn’t have to order – the barista knew exactly what I wanted and served my cappuccino and whole-wheat brioche in less than a minute. He called me "caro” – dear – and smiled. The coffee was superb and cheap. Perfect.

starbucks enters italy

Number of European Starbucks stores*

1,000

Currently, Britain leads

the European market

with more than 900

stores

500

100

Finland

Norway

50

Sweden

25

Den.

Russia

Neth.

Poland

Ger.

Czech.

Belg.

Ireland

Slovakia

Lux.

Switz.

Romania

Hung.

Austria

France

Spain

Bulg.

Italy

Monaco

Port.

Greece

Turk.

Since September, Starbucks

has opened four locations

in Milan. The Seattle-based

chain plans to expand to

more than a dozen more

Italian cities in 2019.

Cyprus

*As of May 2018. This map includes both company-

operated and licensed stores

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statista.com; corriere.it

starbucks enters italy

Number of European Starbucks stores*

Currently, Britain leads

the European market

with more than 900

stores

1,000

500

100

Finland

Norway

50

Sweden

25

Den.

Russia

Neth.

Poland

Ger.

Czech.

Belg.

Ireland

Slovakia

Lux.

Switz.

Romania

Hungary

Austria

France

Spain

Bulg.

Italy

Monaco

Port.

Turk.

Greece

Since September, Starbucks

has opened four locations

in Milan. The Seattle-based

chain plans to expand to

more than a dozen more

Italian cities in 2019.

Cyprus

*As of May 2018. This map includes both company-operated and

licensed stores

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statista.com; corriere.it

starbucks enters italy

1,000

Number of European Starbucks stores*

500

Currently, Britain leads

the European market

with more than 900

stores

100

Finland

Norway

50

25

Sweden

Den.

Russia

Neth.

Poland

Ger.

Czech.

Belg.

Ireland

Slovakia

Lux.

Switz.

Romania

Hungary

Austria

France

Spain

Bulg.

Italy

Monaco

Port.

Turkey

Greece

Since September, Starbucks

has opened four locations

in Milan. The Seattle-based

chain plans to expand to

more than a dozen more

Italian cities in 2019.

Cyprus

*As of May 2018. This map includes both

company-operated and licensed stores

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: statista.com; corriere.it

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