On a plaque on the wall is an homage to Milan: “The city that inspired our dreams. Every coffee that we have ever served brought us here.” It refers to a 1983 visit by Howard D. Schultz, Starbucks’ chairman emeritus, who has repeatedly cited Milanese bars as the inspiration for the coffeehouse chain that began in Seattle and now has more than 27,000 sites worldwide.
In September 2018, Starbucks opened its first coffeehouse in Milan—in an elegant converted post office in the heart of the city—not far from the Duomo on one side and the Sforza Castle on the other. This is no ordinary Starbucks, but a Reserve Roastery with an in-house coffee roastery, a 30-foot-long Tuscan marble bar, various coffee stations, and more than 115 beverages (plus a map to guide customers around the store). This is the company’s third Reserve Roastery, after locations in Seattle and Shanghai, apparently designed to make a splash in the country of coffee and the design capital of Italy.
Does Italy need Starbucks and will it survive? Opening day saw people waiting for at least an hour in a line that snaked around the building. This was a novelty, an event that many fashion-conscious Italians welcomed, along with the venti cups—a status symbol for young people who boast them while walking around town. But will they welcome American fare like pumpkin spice latte with maple pecan sauce?
Drinking coffee is a matter of habit. For many Italians who spurn the acqua sporca (dirty water) of American coffee and love their caffeine fixes at neighborhood bars, things won’t change. Moreover, many Italians in America still cling to their Lavazza and find the coffee of Starbucks “burned and over roasted.” And Starbucks isn’t cheap: an espresso at the Milanese location costs 1.8 euro compared to 1 euro at a typical neighborhood café. The cappuccino at 4.5 euro is three times the going rate locally.
The established bars and cafes do not seem worried by this new invader in the coffee market. They are confident in their clientele and their quality coffee and product, which includes food, a relaxed atmosphere, a social meeting place — and the comfort of habit. According to the Starbucks’ manager, the new roastery offers “an experience” that does not compete with Milanese coffeehouses, which have their own traditions and histories. Instead, it will offer amenities typical of those in the United States, including free Wi-Fi and “the possibility to come, sit, buy nothing, and hold business meetings.” Customers can also come and knock back an espresso standing at the bar, the usual Italian approach.
Starbucks plans to open 3 regular coffeehouses in Milan by the end of the year. Is there room for everyone? Time will tell.