Espresso is the name of the game
In late February, during Milan’s Fashion Week, Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz stood amidst a small congregation of Italian business leaders to announce that, “with great humility and respect,” his company would be opening its first Italian location in the country’s fashion capital early next year. According to a press release issued shortly thereafter, Italy had long been in Starbucks’ sights, “a dream 33 years in the making,” inspired by a business trip Schultz took to Milan and Verona in 1983. Schultz has revisited Italy every year since, and he’s long claimed a certain hereditary affinity between Italian coffee culture, with its cheap espresso and neighborly vibe, and Starbucks, which now has nearly 24,000 stores in 73 countries across the world.
Other than its reliance on espresso-based drinks and Italianate nomenclature, there’s scant resemblance between Starbucks and a typical caffè bar in Rome or Milan. At one, patrons “take” an espresso, often standing at the counter, for which they’re seldom charged more than a euro. They’ll talk with the barista or fellow customers about sports or politics or last night’s Eurovision. The other is most well-known for sugary calorie bombs like the White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino®, served in venti (that means “twenty,” as in twenty ounces) takeaway cups, made with automated espresso machines to maximize efficiency.
Nevertheless, Schultz is quoted in the press release saying that “the dream of the company always has been to sometime complete the circle and open in Italy, but we haven’t been ready.” The only explanation offered for why the time is now right is that Schultz feels “intuitively” that it is. (Starbucks declined comment for this story.) To ease its entry into the Italian market, the coffee giant will team up with the Percassi Group, a retail and real estate concern that has operated major brand partnerships in Italy with the likes of Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Zara, Victoria's Secret, and Lego.
This struck me as deeply weird. Actual millions of people pass through Starbucks every day, a ritual that feels so deeply representative of American capitalist culture, in its smoothly disseminated predictability and availability, that I’ve never thought to impute some other value set to it. That the company would stake a claim to an Italian heritage makes for a good narrative, and in itself isn’t particularly surprising. Neither is expanding to Italy—the country is by far the biggest market in the world yet to be gifted the Pumpkin Spice Latte. But that was just the thing: It has been more than thirty years since Starbucks opened its first coffeeshop. The chain is successful in France and Austria, to name two other EU member states with strong coffee cultures, so why hasn’t it come to Italy, its so-called spiritual home? And what might that say about Italian coffee culture? Having newly arrived in Italy for an extended stay, I decided to try and find out.
In Italy, caffè is synonymous with espresso, and with few exceptions, quality is at best an ancillary concern. Ordering, consuming, and paying for coffee are all fixed by a set of rituals that are initially opaque to the newcomer. (I made the mistake, early in my tenure here, of ordering a cappuccino after 11 a.m. Never order a drink with milk after 11 a.m. They are for breakfast.) Here, one “takes” a coffee, in the same way one takes a medicine. An Italian will return to their bar multiple times throughout the day, consuming short, strong shots of espresso while standing at the counter. These trips constitute breaks in the workday; it’s the ritual that’s important. “It’s just to wake up,” says Francesco Sanapo, co-owner of the coffee bar Ditta Artigianale, in Florence. “They don’t care about the taste.”
These consumption habits were shaped by several historical factors. Italians have always consumed a lot of coffee at home, but in 1938, a Milanese bar owner named Achille Gaggia patented a steam-free espresso machine that used a piston mechanism to force hot water drawn from a boiler through tightly packed coffee grounds at a higher psi. The resulting extraction emulsified otherwise insoluble oils in the coffee, creating a thin layer of crema atop the brew that has been a distinctive feature of Italian espresso ever since.
According to Jonathan Morris, a social historian at the University of Hertfordshire, this heralded the birth of mass Italian coffee culture, because coffee made outside the home now tasted different from coffee made inside it. Gaggia’s machine, and subsequent improvements thereupon, began showing up in the cafes that proliferated across Italy during the country’s “economic miracle” in the 1950s and ’60s, as Italians began flocking to cities and gathering in neighborhood bars to socialize and watch television.
More than 30,000 new cafe and bar licenses were issued between 1956 and 1971. These were often family-run businesses operating on low profit margins: coffee, along with other basic goods, was price-controlled by anti-inflationary laws, and local roasters, who provided equipment and accoutrements in addition to coffee beans, had to do so at credit terms favorable to the bar owners in order to secure their business. Ergo, there were many incentives to cutting costs, which usually came at the expense of services and quality: Coffee providers began using cheaper, more bitter-tasting Robusta beans and heavily roasting them to mask taste defects; bar owners began charging for table service, and so customers began taking their coffee standing up, dumping a packet of sugar or three into their bitter slugs of espresso before moving on with the day.
As espresso machines improved, the role of the barista evolved, as well: He went from an expert operating a newfangled technology to a simple service provider. For decades, “it was so easy to open a coffee bar in Italy,” says Silvia Bartoloni, the marketing coordinator at La Marzocco, a manufacturer of high-quality espresso machines just outside Florence. “The idea was, you didn't need to have a certain knowledge, you just need to call the roaster and have a budget. It was purely business-oriented.”
Italians have their favorite bars, but they achieve that status on the basis of proximity and vibe. “When Italians attend a specific place, ninety percent of the time it's not for the coffee, it's for the mood, the people,” Bartoloni says. “You have the bar where people talk about sports, the more fancy place people attend in the evening, but they're not focused on the product.”
This has basically been the paradigm for decades, if only because the economics for Italian roasters and espresso machine makers kept improving. In short, the world fell in love with Italian coffee, or the idea of it anyway. In 2013, Italy exported 191,000 tons of roasted coffee—accounting for 84 percent of the total value of coffee sales in the country—and more than 70 percent of the espresso machines made by Italian companies were sold outside the country. Companies like Illy and Lavazza became major players on the international coffee stage. Instant espresso became a thing.
Enter Starbucks. Schultz, who joined the company as Director of Marketing in 1982, left three years later after Starbucks’ original owners wouldn’t commit to expanding on his idea of a chain of Italian-style coffee bars. Schultz took on the job himself, opening a coffee shop in Seattle called Il Giornale (“the newspaper,” in Italian), which sold brewed coffee and espresso beverages made from Starbucks beans. Within two years, the original Starbucks owners, beset by financial troubles, sold the company to Schultz for $3.8 million. He rebranded the Il Giornale chain and Americanized the drinks by adding milk and syrups to sweeten them and expand their volume.
The stores grew ever larger, adding muffins and scones, free Wi-Fi and couches, and shifting to automatic espresso machines. It’s fair to say that as Starbucks became more successful, it became less Italian. Ironically, that’s one of the main reasons it hasn’t come to Italy before now: The company has become so large and successful that the benefits of succeeding in Italy are smaller than the hit its corporate image would take if it failed. Schultz seems appropriately wary—in addition to working with Percassi, he plans to develop a proprietary coffee blend for the Italian market.
There’s also the problem of pride. Because Italians mastered espresso extraction, they have been resistant to outsiders selling them what they believe they do best. “In Italy, Starbucks may not find great success, but because of that idea that in Italy we have the knowledge of espresso in our DNA,” Bartoloni says. “So we don't need coffee made by Starbucks.”
Other foreign coffee chains, like Costa Coffee and Caffè Nero in the U.K., have traded on the implicit value of identifying their brands with Italian coffee culture. But no chain coffee shops have really taken off within Italy. Independently owned cafes and bars comprise 89 percent of the market, according to a recent Euromonitor report, and two of the largest chains are Autogrill, a foodservice company with outlets on highways and travel locations throughout Italy, and McCafé.
The Italian coffee market is starting to evolve, and slowly but surely, third wave coffee is coming to Italy. Third wave coffee is defined by the use of Arabica beans, lighter roasts, single-origin sourcing, and direct trade. It’s the foodie movement in a mug: an ethics of consumption welded to a desire to extract different, more nuanced flavors—brightness, acidity, tanginess—from variously sourced coffee beans.
At Ditta Artigianale, which opened two years ago in Florence’s historical center, you can see firsthand the light tension created by introducing internationally focused, third wave coffees and consumption habits to a culture that isn’t exactly asking for it. Its co-founder, Francesco Sanapo, chose that location in part to attract the hordes of tourists and study-abroad students in Florence until the rest of the city grocked this new type of coffee. In addition to espresso-based drinks, Ditta Artigianale does pour over, aeropress, and iced coffees. It also serves high-quality food, does regular gin and vermouth tastings, offers free Wi-Fi, and it is an extremely pleasant place to while away an afternoon.You can often find freelancers on laptops and students in groups. The idea of providing a comfortable venue for socialization is a key component of Ditta’s success, since most coffee shops in Italy are not for that purpose. If Starbucks is successful here, the number one reason will probably be that young people like hanging out there.
If there’s a leading figure in the Mediterranean third wave coffee movement, it’s Sanapo. The son of a coffee bar owner, Sanapo came to Florence when he was 20. Frustrated by the stagnation he saw in Italy’s coffee culture, he entered Italy’s national barista competition in 2008, finished in last place, and decided to rededicate himself to the craft. By 2013, he’d won the competition three times, and was a finalist in the World Barista Championship.
“I'm so proud of Italy’s coffee history,” Sanapo tells me one afternoon at Ditta’s newly opened two-story location in Florence’s Oltrarno district. “It's something we created—not me, not my father, but probably the generation before. They were a very genius, passionate people. They created the espresso machine, the espresso culture, coffee bar culture. But at the same time, I'm sad for our generation, because our generation forgets everything. They really don't take care of researching, development, studying. Probably they are satisfied—espresso is Italian, that's it, you don't need to see what happens around the world. But this is not the best way.”
Sanapo sees his role, in part, as educator. “I think the key for success is to change attitudes,” he says. “We have to educate people on how coffee can be a very nice product to taste and enjoy, and not something cheap where you find a dirty machine and shitty brands.” To that end, Sanapo says he’s grateful for Starbucks’ impending arrival, since it will help change Italians’ minds about how coffee can and should be prepared and served. “They can open minds. I want to pay a coffee to Howard Schultz!”
Ditta charges €1.50 for an espresso, and Sanapo finds himself explaining sourcing, pricing, and how to enjoy an espresso to Italians who’ve spent a lifetime paying one euro for their coffee. “When you do something different, you have to really take care of people,” he says. There was resistance, at least at first—the first week Ditta opened, an older man walked in, barked out his order, and plunked a euro down on the bar. After Sanapo explained that the coffee cost €1.50, the man began yelling, You’re stealing my money! You’re a mafioso! You will close your doors in six months! After six months, Sanapo saw the man outside his shop, and invited him in to have a free espresso. Now he’s a regular customer.