10 Minute Read | By Gino De Blasio
Today’s Giro Food is all about coffee. Actually, one city, one man, and a bunch of teenagers taking pictures of their coffee. It’s about Starbucks, but where did the idea come from and how has the news of it going to Italy been received…
Stage 17 sees the final sprint, an arrival near Milan and the final opportunity for the riders to make the difference in the points stages.
It would take 33 years for Howard Schultz to see his dream come true. In 1983, whilst sitting in a coffee bar in Milan centre, Schultz noticed something very different about the Italian attitude to coffee; it was an experience, a meeting place, a preferred choice. Little was he to know his passion for the Italian way of doing things could turn a business and brand into a global venture, with the exception of one nation he had left alone, potentially on purpose, for more than thirty years, Italy.
During Milan Fashion Week, Schultz took to the stage to make his intentions for Starbucks very clear; it will be with “great humility” that “Starbucks will enter the Italian market in Milan by 2017.”
For “the man that globalised coffee”, it would see the international coffee giant owner pay homage to the coffee culture that inspired him. Selling roughly 90 million cups per week in the world, one would think that any doubters would be careful with their words.
Queue the British press. They did everything to tare down the idea of any potential success that the entreprise could have in the land of coffee culture. To them, it made no sense. It would be like opening a chain of pastry shops across town centres in the United Kingdom – let’s call them Gregg’s. Instead of shopping at independents, it could never really work. Headlines read: ‘Starbucks Faces Struggle to Take on Italian Coffee Traditions’, ‘Skinny soy spicy pumpkin frappuccino anyone? Italy braces for arrival of Starbucks’ and ‘Can Starbucks succeed in Italy?’
If there was an award for “don’t do it Schultzy”, the judges would have had a hard time deciding. The thought that a global player such as Starbucks could have the audacity, the pomp, the fricconces to even dabble in the Italian market sent shivers to many across the globe, especially in Italy.
“It’s the death of espresso!” “We don’t take cream in our lattes! “Let’s start queueing for coffee.” Were the general tone and barbs etched across social media. The Italians who took to Twitter weren’t so much divided, but moreover confused. It was as if the thought intrigued, scared, and created defiance, causing a mass discombobulation in one. (They hadn’t been this confused since the Bishop of Buenos Aires was made pope in 2012) For those that had left the peninsula and experienced Starbucks first hand in either the United States or the UK, each had a story that they wanted to share in either a Tweet of 145 characters long, in a photo, or in a ranty, sweary tirade.
For those that had left the peninsula and experienced Starbucks first hand in either the United States or the UK, each had a story that they wanted to share in either a Tweet of 145 characters long, in a photo, or in a ranty, sweary tirade.
The medusa is going to have a fight.
And yet, for those that know Howard Schultz well enough, it is widely claimed and accepted, that he loves Italy, the Italian culture and, naturally, the coffee culture more than some Italians themselves. As the former marketing director of the Seattle Coffee house chain, which then sold whole-bean coffee from a handful of stores, Schultz visited Milan as a representative at an international trade show. He returned with an “idea that would change the trajectory of Starbucks Coffee Company.” Nothing like the American dream and marketing machine to make you think that there is a film starring Bradley Cooper in the making: “One Man, One Coffee, One Vision.”
For Schultz, his observations about the Italian coffee culture greatly contrasted to the American experience. There was no “Grab and Go” experience – in Italy that’s something completely different! Quality wasn’t a concern. In fact, knowing where your coffee was from, was (and possibly still remains) an issue. Anything other than a filter brand left much for the imagination to be desired. Basically, the coffee in America, pre-Starbucks “was pretty poor”, according to Schultz.
To turn the American market was going to be tougher than making us think Rock V was a good idea. It required brilliant advertising, a culture shift, product changes and an experiential market pitch that would get Americans thinking about the coffee they drunk. Standard filter could never be a real option anymore. No, it had to have flavour, thick syrupy sauces and the word ‘latte’ had to mean that three quarters of a cup comprises of milk and not coffee; something admittedly isn’t seen that often in Italy.
To turn the American market was going to be tougher than making us think Rock V was a good idea
Just three years after visiting Italy for the first time, Schultz, the then Marketing Director was set to become owner of the Starbucks empire. His vision and determination to replicate the Italian coffee culture in the USA nearly hit a juddering iceberg when the owners announced they were going to sell the franchise.
Enter in Bill Gates and a plethora of generous, welcoming investors that put up the money quicker than a Greek IMF bailout. Schultz would be able to develop his dream by taking the model across the country, setting up franchises and building on the newly discovered American appreciation of coffee.
Whilst Schultz and company may have been able to change the minds of the American population, it’s going to be harder with Italy; “the home of coffee”. Of course, Milan’s own coffee revolution has seen many an invention and many a challenge over the last ninety years.
As the encyclopaedia “Coffee Makers” points out, home and bar consumption had seen many different formats. From the percolated to slow drip forms, it wasn’t until the Moka machine in the late 1920s had coffee become both more accessible in homes, restaurants and bars.
Here’s the thing, yes, it was popular, and yes it was cheaper on all accounts to make the fine brew. Less waste equalled more value for the end user, but it was slow… very slow. Taking an average of six minutes to fire up one machine at a time, Milan – like many other cities across the nation – had discovered that whilst they loved coffee, they would need to wait for it.
The Moka machine was inspired by Luigi Di Ponti’s wife’s washing machine, which motivated him to rethink the whole process of home made coffee. Using the same principles as the washer, where pressure is applied from heat forcing a cleaning agent to the drum, Bialetti reasoned that coffee can be made the same way. Yes, it was also Italian, so whilst it was slow, it also looked amazing.
Yes, it was also Italian, so whilst it was slow, it also looked amazing.
Inspired by the heavy art deco design of the 1920’s and 1930’s, it would go on to win critical acclaim in design circles with designer, Alfonso Bialetti being immortalised on the stovetop as the “Omino con i baffi” (The little man with the moustache) in a cartoon format. To this day, the Moka pot carries a cultural and historic weight in kitchens across the Italian peninsula and those that love the country around the world.
But it was to be the invention of the piston driven coffee machine that would see roast bean culture fly in the country. Achille Gaggia, a Milanese barman who in 1938 filed a patent for a “steam free, coffee machine.” Unlike the previous machines making coffee around the nation at the time, this would utilise a pressure system turning coffee grinds and water into a fine espresso within 15 seconds. To put this into perspective, it takes Starbucks at least another 30 seconds on top of that to get your order.
Whilst the Moka unleashed the capabilities of drinking coffee at home, the bar built Gaggia coffee maker was turning heads and styling out a young generation of coffee drinkers to get their cup whilst also entertaining themselves with how they looked, how their date appeared and who had the best Vespa parked in the street. It’s nearly impossible not to envy the Italian youth of the 40s and 50s.
This was where the culture of coffee began for Italians. It’s what Schultz picked up on with his visit in the 1980s – it was a community, and that’s what he wanted to recreate.
Italy made itself the home of coffee culture – a nation which was already home to to fashion, food and fast cars.
If bringing an American model coffee chain is causing such problems, then it also may be fair to point out other enterprises that have succumbed to such criticism. Heaven forbid Italy had any, for example, Primark’s. (One opened in Milan in February 2016 with another three planned for openings across Italy’s major cities). Zara? 29 stores across the peninsula, while H&M has over 70 stores already and more are on the way.
How about food? We know, even from just this humble, cultural pop observation blog that the Italians are as picky about food as an Italian mother’s choice about her son’s girlfriend. Well, the nation that brought the idea of the “slow food” movement, which was ironically spurred on by the opening of a McDonald’s by the Spanish steps in Rome, has had to deal with this very fast food giant. How many McDonald’s are in Italy? Three, four? Nope! An astounding 512 outlets.
We know, even from just this humble, cultural pop observation blog that the Italians are as picky about food as an Italian mother’s choice about her son’s girlfriend.
It’s not like Italy hasn’t succumbed to the idea that fast food, a truly original American concept in a commercial sense, can be a profitable venture. Fast food pizza anyone? Yes, they have that in many stations, malls and public areas. Just like the New York Dollar Slice; Spizzico is its name and there are 140 stores across the country. Finally, fast cars. Italy has Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Both are owned by FIAT, but what about Lamborghini and Pagani? Well, one is owned by Volkswagen, the other co-owned by Daimler (moreover, commercial rights). So does Italy not sell Bugatti (VW), Porsche (VW), Aston Martins and Teslas? Are they not “Italian enough” for the market place? In addition, let’s not also forget the target market that Schultz and co. aren’t admitting to – teenagers of about 16 to young adults of 25 years olds. They want to feel grown up, they want to be seen as cosmopolitan. they want to believe that they are no different to the kids across the world who are slurping on their iced coffees in plastic cups with their names scribbled on them.
A photo posted by Starbucks Coffee ☕ (@starbucks) on
Why are they believing this is what other kids do? Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly and other social networks are the answer. Modern day consumerism is largely spurred by the thought of not wanting to miss out, thanks to social media; and maybe that is Starbucks’ biggest weapon.
With the flagship store set to open in Milan in 2017, for Schultz it’s a personal journey that is becoming a full circle tribute; even if he will need to tinker more with this model than a frustrated teenager trying to illegally stream the latest series of Game of Thrones.
Milan has brought the coffee lovers the espresso, coffee culture, and in a weird yet seemingly natural way, a world business, which is returning to its prodigious origins.
Percassi, who has been brought in by Schultz to help with getting Starbucks into the Italian market, is more than aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
“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,” declared the entrepreneur and business mogul.
It will be tough, but if anyone can do it, it is the 62-year-old. After all, it was him who brought the fast food pizza chain Spizzico to the Italian’s attention.
For Schultz, however, it feels as if this latest endeavour is about honour…. Honouring the Italian philosphy, the Italian people and the Italian coffee culture, and perhaps, honouring that dream that he had about bringing a piece of Italy to America, and now back to its sacred home. Whilst Italy may be the “land of coffee”, it has managed to embrace not only slow food, but also slow life. Maybe, just maybe, it could embrace slow coffee as well.
What makes the perfect espresso? Amy Fleming from the Guardian investigates the phenomena here. Whilst Alex Galantino from La Bottega Milanese gives you a guide to the perfect coffee with his Moka guide.