The entrance of the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery flagship in Milan, Italy, September 4 2018. Picture: REUTERS/STEFANO RELLANDINI
The entrance of the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery flagship in Milan, Italy, September 4 2018. Picture: REUTERS/STEFANO RELLANDINI

Milan — US coffee chain Starbucks this week opened its first branch in Italy, with the sprawling Milan "roastery" at the avant garde of an ambitious plan to conquer the spiritual home of espresso.

The Seattle-based multinational is taking on a mainstay of Italian culture: a thick thimbleful of strong black liquid served at the bar in cafés across the country, 6-billion times a year, according to Italian catering federation FIPE.

Not surprising then that Starbucks, which is well established elsewhere in Europe, has delayed its entry into the Italian market, originally planned for early 2017.

Outspoken former CEO Howard Schultz, who quit the chain in June amid talk that he could run for the White House in 2020 — has repeatedly said that the company would come to Italy with "humility".

"During my first trip to Milan in 1983, I was captivated by the sense of community I found in the city’s espresso bars — the moments of human connection that passed so freely and genuinely between baristas and their customers," said Schultz, now chairman emeritus after masterminding Starbucks’ worldwide expansion.

New coffee experience

The company hopes that its Reserve Roastery in Milan — which it describes as "the most beautiful Starbucks in the world" — will entice customers to try a new coffee experience.

Matteo Figura, of market researchers NPD Group, said that Starbucks was entering the Italian market at the right moment. "At the moment, chains account for only 20% of Italy’s catering trade, the rest are independent businesses. But chains are expanding rapidly, more than 4%" a year," he said.

The way Italians consume coffee has also changed, he said. While previously an espresso was "an opportunity to have an energy ‘shot’, consumers today increasingly care more about quality and the experience they can have".

Starbucks will target millennials aged 18 to 34, said Figura, adding that the Italian market has room for traditional cafés and Starbucks, as they target different consumers.

"Cracking the home of coffee culture is a tough challenge, with many Italians deriding the move as ridiculous," said Alexandre Loeur, an analyst at Euromonitor International.

But "while snobbery might initially prevail, the younger generations are more open to the type of specially coffee offered by the Seattle-based brand", he said.

"If we look at France, another country with a strong coffee culture, millennial consumers are undoubtedly responding well to speciality coffees. We can infer that Starbucks could do well [in Italy], in the medium to long term. It remains to be seen if they’ll get a foothold in Italy," said Alessandro Panzarino, who runs the Cafe Martini, around the corner from the new Starbucks café.

Simone Dusi, 35, will not be swayed. "I really don’t like Starbucks coffee," he said. "I like strong coffee, so absolutely no way to diluted coffee or variants like Frappuccino!"

Starbucks, which had a turnover of $22.4bn in 2017, has 29,000 cafés in 77 countries, including 12,000 in the US and 3,300 in China. It plans to close 150 branches in the coming year because of a slowdown in the US market.