Starbucks in Milan… Is This the End of Italian Coffee Culture?

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All about the new Starbucks that just opened in Milan – the first one in Italy. Plus, cultural background about Italy and espresso, coffee history, and my own longtime feud with Starbucks.

I’ve been meaning to write about Starbucks in Milan ever since I moved to this city – exactly two years ago. That’s also exactly as long as Starbucks has been claiming they were about to open a coffeeshop here. Any day now, they kept saying. The expectation was building – along with the PR stunts. And Italians had something unifying that they could almost all be annoyed about.

And now it’s happened. The first Starbucks opened here in Milan last week.

There were no Starbucks anywhere in Italy until September 2018, when the first one opened in a former post office in Piazza Cordusio, in the center of Milan. And this is not your average Starbucks on the corner – it’s called a “Reserve Roastery,” and they roast all of the coffee for all of the Starbucks in Europe right there. 

It also happens to be beautiful, which is hard for me to say because I’m an avowed Starbucks hater.

Nonetheless, I’m willing to admit that I stood in line – mostly with Italian families, on the last weekend of summer holidays – for 45 minutes to see what the fuss was about. (A friend was in town and she wanted to go… that’s my excuse.)

Inside the flashy interior of the first Starbucks in Milan, Italy. ©KettiWilhelm2018
My friend Michelle, who responded with, “Well we’re here! Let’s do it!” to my, “Umm, do we really want to wait in that line…?”  (Thanks for keeping me from being a lazy reporter, Michelle.)

Italian Coffee History

There are so many strange and fascinating cultural things going on with the opening of the first Starbucks in Italy – for coffee culture in general, for Italian politics and food culture. And even for my own personal history with Italy, coffee (having written about it from three countries now) and Starbucks.

First, the briefest history of coffee and espresso:

You probably know espresso is from Italy. But did you know the coffee plant is from Ethiopia? While coffee as a drink was probably invented in Yemen. And Italy was the first major adopter of coffee in Europe, thanks to the Venetian Republic’s trade with the Middle East and North Africa. This was in the 1600s that coffee began to take off in Venice.

But espresso – the machine for making coffee more quickly – was invented in Torino in the late 1800’s and perfected in Milan throughout the 1900s. (Smithsonian has a fascinating history of the machine, if you’re wanting to nerd out like I did.)

Of course having colonies in coffee-producing Ethiopia didn’t hurt the Italian taste for coffee. In one of my research rabbit-holes, I read that production and export of coffee beans shot up during the brief, Italian-Fascist colonization there.

Then Starbucks Came In…

Thirty-five years ago, an American businessman name Howard Schultz was inspired by the Italian espresso culture he found in Milan. He bought out the existing, indie Starbucks coffee shop in Seattle, grew it and made a fortune on it. And now of course, his company has come full-circle to sell African beans and Italian espresso back to Italy with an American twist.

That last part is the well-known Starbucks origin story: Howard Schultz traveling through Milan, falling in love with espresso bar culture, and introducing some version of it in the US. And only after opening 27,000 Starbucks stores around the world is the company daring to come back to Italy.

(Honestly, I’m writing half of this from memory. After writing about cafes in Costa Rica and the anti-Starbucks in China, drinking about a thousand espressos shots in Italy, doing a project on Starbucks in grad school, and then a consulting gig for a major Italian coffee company, I can say my coffee knowledge is pretty strong.)

Beautiful, metallic espresso machines in the first Starbucks in Italy. ©KettiWilhelm2018

Cultural Differences Way Beyond Coffee

I’m going to go a little off in the cultural weeds here, but stay with me. I swear it’s relevant.

Today, the coffee Starbucks sells in the US is nothing like what you find in Italy.

Not even close.

From what I’ve read, it was a lot closer to authentic when they first started selling espresso drinks in Seattle in the ’80s. Espresso and “caffè latte” were very foreign and weird to Americans at that time, and I would argue that they still are.

But that is one of the things I still love about US culture:

Strange ideas and weird foreign foods, or lifestyles, or philosophies have a good chance of catching on in the US, and rather quickly as well.

Maybe this is part of what makes us so prone to over-consumption, too. We’re not all that skeptical (compared to Italians, for example), and we love the next new thing. But still, it’s not just Americans who are like this. What worries me most about the exportation of our chain stores is encouraging unhealthy, hyper-consuming culture everywhere.

And this is also what makes the US a testing ground for everything.

New ideas actually have a chance – both because there’s funding available for them, and because there isn’t such a strong traditional culture that delineates what is in from what is out. Anything new and cool we see, we’ll probably buy.

Whereas in Italy, the culture is the opposite – very fixed and traditional.

Here, anything new that people see, they will likely first say is bullshit and a terrible idea. In some ways, I’ve come to appreciate this mentality. (Although I never would have expected to say that in my first few months here.)

Italians don’t accept new ideas so easily. But what they do here, they do well, and with confidence.

Here’s an example that continues with the coffee theme: In an Italian coffee bar, there’s no menu board to read and decide between the 12, 16, 20 ounce, caramel, vanilla, pumpkin spice, skinny, fat, flat white, latte, frappuccino, or whatever. There’s usually no menu at all. You get an espresso, it costs one euro, and you move on with your day. It’s not personalized, but it’s comforting, dependable, simple, and good.

The interior of the first Starbucks coffee shop in Milan, Italy. ©KettiWilhelm2018

So of course Italians know that Starbucks is not really Italian coffee.

But of course that’s part of the reason the brand will be successful here – despite what the Italian news commentators and most of my Italian friends say.

Even my favorite Italian journalist confidently told NPR that the higher price would be a problem. I don’t buy it.

PR Stunts & Starbucks Haters

Starbucks has been on people’s minds here since their controversial publicity stunt in Milan.

Instead of opening the first Italian Starbucks in the beginning of 2017, as they had planned, the company installed a little garden of palm trees in the piazza in front of Milan’s cathedral.

Installing these palm trees in front of Milan's Duomo caused quite the controversy for Starbucks. ©KettiWilhelm2018
The Duomo palms in April 2017, about two months after they were installed.

It was hard to tell what exactly it was about the marketing stunt that annoyed people.

Was it that the trees weren’t native to Northern Italy, as the most political and overtly racist people claimed?

This was at the height of the nationalism and racism that Trump’s election fueled over here, too. But truly, people should be used to non-native palms in Milan. Just like coffee, the trees have been all over Italy for centuries.

Also just like for coffee, they’re here firstly thanks to trade, and secondly thanks to the colonization of an independent country. Mussolini even called palms a symbol of Italy’s colonial empire – and he meant that in a good way. So it was both late and anti-historical to start complaining about non-native species just because they were sponsored by Starbucks.

Or because the trees obscured the view of the Duomo?

I mean, they really don’t. Maybe a tiny bit from the street, but if you get out of your car, it’s quite easy to get an unobstructed view.

Or because the sponsoring company wasn’t Italian?

Bingo. I’d say this one makes the most sense. After all, a billion-dollar company selling espresso back to Italians (and to foreign tourists in Italy) is kind of a slap in the face.

There was even a very unsuccessful arson attempt to burn the trees down.

Starbucks' controversial palm trees in front of the Duomo in Milan, Italy. ©KettiWilhelm2017

The Real Reason Starbucks Wins… Even in Italy

Ever since #StarbucksItalia became a topic of conversation, I’ve figured the chain would be successful here for the same reason it’s successful around the world: It doesn’t just sell coffee. Starbucks sells space to hang out that’s not home or the office (the so-called “third space”).

Plus, in other countries Starbucks still has the “cool” American cachet that they haven’t had in the US for quite some time. (At least as far as I’m aware. But what do I know, I feel practically foreign at this point.)

But now that I’ve been to the new Reserve Roastery, I think they’ll be successful for better reasons.

In Milan, Starbucks managed to build something that is as different from everything else on the market here as it is from the selling points that work for them in other markets (ie, offering a third-space and being just being familiar).

It’s actually a cool place. (Seriously I still can’t believe I wrote that sentence.) It’s gigantic, yet elegant feeling and totally unique. They have the coffee roasting process on display and friendly people to explain it to customers who ask. A local Milanese bakery/coffee shop provides the baked goods they serve.

Plus, in addition to coffee, they offer aperitivo, with a glass of Prosecco or a spritz cocktail, and other things you would never see in the US – including a totally Italian coffee menu. Only espresso and cappuccino, no frappes or pumpkin lattes or other creations that work in the States.

A man working on a computer in Starbucks in Milan. ©KettiWilhelm2018
Someone must have told him this was a good place to get some work done, but on opening weekend? Really?
Finally, on a personal note, it’s sort of funny to me that I have this parallel history with my old nemesis Starbucks.

In February, 2016, while Lele and I were backpacking around Southeast Asia, getting to know each other, and thinking about where we might go live after China, Starbucks announced they’d open in Milan in early 2017. I actually remember this. We moved to Milan a few months before that, but Starbucks didn’t show up until now, just a week before I’ll be moving to France.

It’s also strange to realize I don’t hate Starbucks as much as I used to.

Maybe it was because I was young and wanted to fight the man. Especially anything corporate, homogenizing, or that I saw as inauthentic or, to be perfectly honest, popular. (Hello, 16-ounce macchiato for all of those points.)

For the most part, I’m still exactly that difficult, but I don’t think Starbucks is so evil anymore. Here why:

They did open the way for all of the small business fancy coffee shops in the US by creating a taste for espresso where there wasn’t one. And they do provide health care for their employees and pay for some university tuition. Those are two things that might make working for Starbucks in the US almost like living in Italy – where both health and education are paid for more by taxes than directly by employers, but nonetheless they are two things Italians don’t have to worry about paying for, whether they work as baristas or anything else.

I’m still not likely to become a Starbucks drinker, because I’m a proponent of voting with your dollar (or euro, or whatever). I like to support the little independent businesses, which generally leave more money in the local community than chains do.

And my prediction remains that Starbucks will do well in Italy. They sell a different product from the traditional coffee bars here, where people grab an espresso and move on – so I doubt they’ll put any local shops out of business.

Yes, part of their success (at least at this first mega-coffeeshop) will be from the cachet of the brand and part from the unique concept-store. But also a part will be because they sell space to chill, and that is something anyone, including local Italian competitors, can do. Just as US entrepreneurs learned that espresso was a good way to make a living after Starbucks made it so, Italian entrepreneurs can probably learn to sell space as well as Starbucks does, if Starbucks shows that there’s really a market for it.

And I appreciate how at least this first store here in Milan blends pretty inoffensively into its neighborhood.

The post office at Piazza Cordusio, Milan – now home to Starbucks. ©KettiWilhelm2018
No golden arches here. It’s actually pleasantly hard to tell this is a Starbucks.
Yet I do absolutely cringe at McDonalds and other chains making cities all around the world look the same, so I still feel conflicted about even being okay with any chain.

But it’s also worth noting that Starbucks is objectively much better than McDonalds for sustainability (if for no other reason than their business is not based on cheap meat), and employee treatment (for the reasons mentioned above) and for quality, and responsible business practices. (I may have gone soft on Starbucks, but for good reasons. Where unless they change a lot, I’m going to remain a McDonalds hater.)

And at the end of the day, this is one thing I’ve learned living abroad for so long: Even when you see the same chains everywhere, it’s only superficially homogenizing. It doesn’t mean the culture underneath is the same. And in Italy, a huge part of culture is food culture, which remains (thankfully) strong, independent, and anything but Americanized

The beautiful former post office at Piazza Cordusio, in Milan's city center is now the home of Italy's first Starbucks. ©KettiWilhelm2018
The former post office at Piazza Cordusio is now home to Italy’s first Starbucks.

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