I’ve been meaning to write about Starbucks in Milan, Italy for as long as Starbucks has been meaning to open here.
Which also happens to be exactly as long as I’ve lived in Italy. (Luckily we’re both equally behind schedule.) Starbucks’ mega-coffee shop/roastery opened here in Milan last week. I’m willing to admit I stood in a line, mostly full of Italian families on the last weekend of summer holidays, for 45 minutes just to see what the deal was.
There are so many strange and fascinating cultural things going on with this opening of the first Starbucks in Italy – for coffee culture in general, for Italian politics and food culture, and for my own personal history with coffee, Italy, and my longtime feud with Starbucks.
As you may know, espresso is from Italy. Because I love doing this kind of research, here’s the briefest history: The plant is from Ethiopia. Coffee as a drink was probably invented in Yemen, but 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. And 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 solid history of the machine, if you’re interested.)
Of course having colonies in coffee-producing Ethiopia didn’t hurt the Italian taste for coffee.
Lost 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, 35 years ago, an American business man was inspired by/stole/appropriated “Italian” coffee, made a fortune on it, and his company has come full-circle to sell African beans and Italian espresso back to Italy. That 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. Now that there are 27,000 Starbucks in the world, the company is bringing espresso back where they found it. (These aren’t even things I have to look up. After writing about cafes in Costa Rica and the anti-Starbucks in China, drinking about a thousand espressos shots in Italy, and then doing a project on Starbucks in grad school and a consulting gig for a major Italian coffee company, I can say my coffee resume is pretty strong.)
Today, Starbucks’ coffee in the US is not Italian by a long shot. From what I’ve read, it was a lot closer to authentic when they first started selling drinks in Seattle in the ’80s. Espresso and “caffè latte” were very foreign and weird to Americans.
And that right there is one of the things I still love about US culture.
It’s the fact that strange ideas and weird foreign foods, or lifestyles, or philosophies have a good chance of catching on, and rather quickly as well. Maybe that’s part of what makes us so prone to over-consumerism. (And the thing that worries me most about exporting our chain stores is exporting our hyper-consuming culture.) But it’s 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 say is bullshit and terrible idea. I never would have predicted this when I first moved here, but in some ways I’ve come to appreciate this mentality. Italians don’t accept new ideas so easily. But what they do here, they do well, and with confidence. Continuing with the example of coffee: 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 a euro, and you move on with your day. It’s not personalized, but it’s comforting, steady, dependable, simple, and good.
Italians know that Starbucks is not really Italian coffee (and Americans should know, too). 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. (Including my favorite Italian journalist on NPR saying the higher price will be a problem. I don’t buy it.)
The company has been on people’s minds here since their controversial publicity stunt in Milan.
Instead of opening their first Italian Starbucks location in the beginning of 2017, as they had planned, they installed a little garden of palm trees in the piazza in front of Milan’s Duomo cathedral.
It was hard to tell what exactly about the marketing stunt annoyed people.
Was it because the trees weren’t native to Northern Italy, as the most political and overtly racist protestors 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 here. Just like coffee, the trees have been all over Italy for centuries. And just like for coffee, that’s 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 in support of racist nationalism.) Or was it because the sponsoring company wasn’t Italian, or because they obscured the view of the church? It was hard to tell. There was even a very unsuccessful arson attempt to burn the trees down in protest.
Ever since #StarbucksItalia became a topic of conversation, I’ve figured the chain would be successful here for the same reason it’s successful everywhere: It doesn’t just sell coffee. It sells space to hang out that’s not home or the office (the so-called “third space”), along with 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 shop, I think they’ll be successful for better reasons. They managed to build something in Milan that is as different from what’s available on the market here as it is from the third-space and green logo cups that work for them everywhere else. It’s actually a cool place. It’s huge, elegant, 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. They offer aperitivo, with a glass of Prosecco or a spritz cocktail, and other things you would never see in the US – including an Italian coffee menu. Only espresso and cappuccino, no frappes or other creations that work in the states.
Here’s the personal side I said I would get to. First, it’s just sort of funny to me that we have this parallel history, me and 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, Starbucks announced they’d open in Milan in early 2017. We moved to Milan a couple 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 hated anything corporate, homogenizing, inauthentic, or, to be honest, popular (hello, 16-ounce macchiato).
For the most part, I’m still exactly that difficult, but I don’t think Starbucks is so terrible anymore. 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. They do give health care to their employees and pay for some university education. 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 business people.
I’m still not likely to become a Starbucks drinker, just because I’m a proponent of voting with your dollar/euro, and I like to support the little independent businesses, which generally leave more money in the local community than chains do.
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 anyone will be going out of business. Yes, part of their success 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 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 offer space as well as Starbucks does, if that’s really what the people want.
Though I do still cringe at McDonalds and other chains making cities all around the world look the same, so I still feel conflicted about even being OK with that. I do appreciate how at least this first store here in Milan blends pretty inoffensively into its neighborhood. It’s also worth noting Starbucks is objectively in a much better league than McDonalds for sustainability – if for no other reason than their business is not based on cheap meat – and for quality, and responsible business practices. (I may have gone soft on Starbucks, but there are reasons. Unless they change a lot, I’m going to remain a McDonalds hater.)
This is one thing I’ve learned living abroad for so long: even when you do 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.