Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s vision for the chain was largely inspired by the coffee bars he saw on his first trip to Milan more than three decades ago. But it took the company growing to about 26,000 stores in 75 countries to win the credibility he felt necessary to make the leap into the country that gave espresso to the world. “I didn’t think we were ready to come to Italy,” Schultz told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. “I think Italy is such a special place. I am so respectful of the Italian coffee heritage and the Italian culture, and I think we had to earn that respect, opportunity, and I think over the years we got to the point that we are now ready to come.”
As he prepares to step down as CEO in April, Schultz will focus on innovation. That includes a Milan location that will open in 2018 of what he called “the quintessential Roastery” one of the high-end shops featuring in-house roasting and complex coffee drinks. The journey of 35 years, he said, completes “my own dream and the circle of Starbucks.” Unsurprisingly, skeptics like 70-year-old Christine Kung see Starbucks as a coals-to-Newcastle enterprise.
“We are happy the way we are,” Kung said on her way to a bar for coffee in central Milan. “We don’t need to be invaded by American scenery. We already have McDonald’s and that’s enough.”
Indeed, the entry of McDonald’s into Italy three decades ago sparked the Slow Food movement that encourages local food traditions, although it ultimately did not prevent the Golden Arches and other fast-food chains that followed from becoming part of the Italian landscape.
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Still, espresso drinks are part of Italian tradition and the fabric of everyday life in a way a quick bite still is not. Italians are accustomed to “taking” an espresso standing at the bar for an average price of 1 euro, or just about a dollar, even in major cities; 1.20-1.50 euros is on par for a cappuccino.
In Italy, baristas generally make the coffee in full sight of the consumer, and hand brioche and other pastries across a glass case, often with a quip. Taking a seat in an Italian bar may incur an extra charge, especially in prime locations. There are few sugary embellishments and Wi-Fi access is spotty, at best.
It is not uncommon to see waiters with silver trays delivering coffee in porcelain cups covered with foil to neighboring business, a practice that underlies the rarity of the takeout coffee cup. This sort of humanity attracted Schultz’s admiration on his first Milan visit. His response is to position the first Starbucks in Italy as a premium operation.