Think of Italy and you think of the 3 ‘F’s – Food, Fashion and Football. Well add a fourth to that list, except it’s a ‘C’, and that ‘C’ stands for Coffee. Italy just wouldn’t be Italy without its famous coffee and in particular its famous Espresso coffee. Despite not being a top coffee producing nation (in fact Italy doesn’t even produce coffee at all), Italians drink over 70 million cups of Espresso coffee annually in over 100,000 coffee bars.
Furthermore, from observation over many years of living in and travelling through Italy, most of these coffee shops are either family run businesses or owned by an Italian parent company. And, just like their famous Espresso, it has been so for generations.
So why would things change now? Who even wants change? Well apparently the international coffee juggernaut, Starbucks, wants change and a piece of that lucrative Espresso coffee drinking Italian market. They are coming to Italy and they just may stir things up. The Starbucks coffee drinking experience is so utterly different to the Italian way that it is hard to fully get that across. Starbucks coffee is served and consumed in a much different way to the traditional Italian style.
Suffice to say that Italians typically spend just five minutes drinking a short and strong espresso, while chatting to friends at a bar, and they never drink Cappuccino after midday or after food. Starbucks coffee is much larger, it is sometimes cold, people spend a long time drinking it whilst using wifi and you can drink a Cappuccino, Frappuccino or whatever you like whenever you like.
To make Starbucks entry even more controversial, they are set to open near Milan’s iconic Il Duomo, the world’s largest Gothic Cathedral and located next to the famous Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton fashion stores. And quite poignantly, the announcement of their arrival coincides with the death of Renato Bialetti. The Bialetti family invented the Moka Stovetop Espresso Maker and Renato turned it into a symbol of Italian style worldwide.
So Starbucks entry is somewhat the coincidence and it could change a fundamental part of Italian culture.
So What do Italians Think?
Well who better to Espresso themselves than the local coffee drinking Milanese, who I met at 10 different coffee shops (see below) when on a recent holiday there –
And this is a 7 minute video interview with Italians where they explain how they felt about it…
The reaction was overall mixed with some welcoming it and others not. Some saying it would be “a novelty” for some time and others considered it as “insane as painting the Duomo purple”. Yet all of them, without exception, were clear about the position of Italian coffee;
“the coffee in Italy is very good and very particular” – Elisa (El Bechee)
it is special because of its “miscela” (meaning mixture) – Andrea (Time Café)
“it is famous in the world” – Alessandro (Corsia del Giardino)
What will happen next?
Italians are proud of their coffee and they do not feel challenged by the entry of Starbucks into their market. The general consensus was that young people would go and that, after some novelty interest, Starbucks will probably succeed but it will not replace traditional Italian coffee drinking. In fact some locals told me that Starbucks had actually entered the Italian market some years back when they opened a coffee shop in the central train station. Apparently it closed soon after due to poor interest. I looked and looked but I could not find any evidence of this venture anywhere.
There is no doubt that the Starbucks style of coffee is different to the traditional Italian style. But, as already noted, Italian food is also famous as is their fashion. Italy has outside American influence in both these sectors yet the traditional Italian style survives and indeed thrives. The Big Mac is enjoyed by many but nobody would ever consider it a replacement for the traditional bowl of quality Italian pasta.
Likewise, Tommy Hilfiger would never replace Gucci or Prada. They complement each other. So why would coffee be any different?
Furthermore a coffee shop similar in style to Starbucks already exists in Milan – Arnolds – and it is quite close to Il Duomo. Yet it has not damaged the business of the traditional coffee house in any way. In fact some of the traditional coffee houses near Il Duomo were so busy that they could not talk to me, likewise Arnolds. So there is room for everybody. But lets see what 2017 brings.