In the early 1980s, Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz visited Italy and supposedly was inspired to bring what he called the "romance and theater" of Italian coffee bars and baristas to the U.S. market. I'm wondering where in the Italian Boot did he visit that caused him to create such an over-blown, over-priced and over-sized coffee product that has little to do with the culture of coffee consumption and tradition in Italy.
Every morning, the average Italian either makes their own small cup of intense espresso with their little art deco Moka coffee pot on their home gas range, or they stand for a couple of minutes in their neighborhood "bar" at an actual bar counter (bars serve coffee in Italy) and down a little cup (usually half full) of dense, hot espresso--usually with some sugar added. This is part of their colazione (breakfast) which nationwide consists of an espresso or cappuccino and a sweet pastry, such as a cornetto (the Italian, less flaky version of a croissant).
Is success really guaranteed in Italy... a country with 22 different regions each with their own regulations and laws and customs? Is it guaranteed in a country where people think it's a Cardinal Sin to add milk to coffee at any other time than early in the morning? Is success guaranteed where eating and drinking while walking on the street or in your car is socially unacceptable and considered disgustoso? Will it be a success where family run, small shops in local towns and villages with loyal customers are the mainstay of the Italian economy?
Starbucks claims that it will enter the birthplace of espresso "with humility and respect". Doesn't that sound like a scene from The Godfather? Are they going to have to bow and kiss a few knuckles, too? Are they going to make Italians an offer they can't refuse?
Starbucks needed a partner to accomplish their plan in Italy, so they selected Italian real estate/mall developer, Gruppo Percassi. The company, based in Bergamo, will license and run the Starbucks brand in Italy. Even signore Percassi himself admitted: "We know that we are going to face a unique challenge with the opening of the first Starbucks store in Italy, the country of coffee, and we are confident that Italian people are ready to live the Starbucks experience, as already occurs in many other markets."
There are some hard facts that will prevent Italians from easily accepting the Starbucks brand. While the espresso machine was invented in Italy, it turns out that Italy doesn't drink anywhere near the amount of coffee as other countries, especially when compared to the United States--we drink about four times as much coffee per person as Italians! Italy ranks as only the seventh largest consumer of coffee in Europe. The reasons for this are simple. Their espresso cups are small, and usually not filled completely. Unlike in other countries where one might have large cups of coffee each day, the Italians drink small amounts. I had an assistant once who drank 6-8 cups each day and even my wife, Lisa likes her coffee in over-sized mugs rather than small cups, I've never seen an Italian drinking coffee from a mug or a paper cup. They don't do take-out coffee, either.
The Italian cultural attitude toward coffee consumption is also very different. Perhaps they will have a cappuccino (with milk) in the morning with a sweet pastry, then a quick espresso shot during a late morning break at the bar down the street from their office, and perhaps another espresso on the way home or after dinner. Workplaces don't have coffee machines and stations as they do here in the U.S., and most homes have at least one Moka pot... never a Mr. Coffee machine. Unlike in American homes where there might be a large pot of coffee (already brewed) in a coffee machine waiting to be consumed all during the day, an Italian likes their espresso made fresh... they drink it and they're done.
The types of coffee served at Starbucks are a caricature of what you find in Italy, some of which are completely made up. In Italy, when you ask for "un caffe" you receive an espresso. Coffee IS espresso to Italians. And if you ask for a "latte" in Italy, you get a glass of milk--yes, only milk. Latte means milk. And a Frappuccino is a trademarked name, invented by Starbucks by shoving together "cappuccino" and "frappe" together... a sweet espresso with milk married to basically a milkshake.
And then there's the amount of sugar in Starbucks offerings. A Grande Vanilla Frappuccino contains more sugar than six servings of Kellog's Fruitloops! After all, there is a reason Italians stay so thin.
If Starbucks opens in Italy, they will also have to be careful about how they roast their beans. Italians roast beans only until they are brown--not black, like American baristas tend to do. In fact, Italians tastes--literally, the way they sense flavors--are different than the American palette. Americans seem to tolerate overly roasted coffee with a much more bitter flavor than Italians prefer. They also don't go for overly sweet things.
You can also consider the fact that Italians don't really drink iced coffee. Their cold coffee is a completely different thing. In fact, a tall glass of iced coffee would strike fear into most Italians... all that ice could cause congestione, a digestive block, and might even threaten one's life! There is an actual health code that forbids making and chilling espresso for storage. Enter the Shakerato.... a shaken and chilled espresso. Ice, espresso and sugar syrup is shaken in a metal cocktail shaker, resulting in a chilled espresso with a foamy head when poured into tall wine glasses. There are also other variations on this...
Caffè Freddo and Granita di Caffè.
Then there's the size difference between Italian espresso and Starbucks products.
In Italy, it goes like this:
- Un Caffè is a demitasse sized cup of espresso, usually about half full. Customers can add cold water or sugar to taste. You might consider this the Italian "single shot".
- Ristretto (Caffè Corto) is a "short shot" (3/4 oz) of very intense espresso (twice the coffee, half the water)
- Lungo is 1-1/2 ounces, opposite of Ristretto (twice the water, half the coffee - less intense)
- Caffè Doppio is a "double shot" is 2 ounces of a more concentrated espresso (double the amount of coffee is used to extract it).
- Cappuccino is roughly 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 foam (never order one after 11am!)
- Caffè Macchiato is a shot of espresso “stained” with a drop of milk or foam.
- Caffè Americano is watered down espresso served in a larger cup.
(In all cases above, the cups used are much smaller than a typical, American style 6 ounce cup.)
- a Demi is 3 ounces
- Espresso Shots (a Short) is 8 ounces
- a Mini is 10 ounces
- a Tall is 12 ounces (offered as low calorie option)
- a Grande is 16 ounces
- Venti literally means 20, for both options - a small Venti is 20 ounces, a large Venti is 24
- a Trenta is a whopping 31 ounces
And they are frugal. One of the reasons they stand while drinking their espresso is that if they sit at a table, they will get charged much more for the table and the table service. And I really can't see an Italian spending 10 Euros on a Grande when they can buy an espresso for 1 Euro or a really nice bottle of wine at their local alimentari for 5 or 6 Euro.
Starbucks has their work cut out for them if they want to attract Italians into their shops...
Time will tell if their cup is half empty or half full.
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