Starbucks goes to Milan for shot at Italy’s dolce vita

Arrival of global coffee behemoth sparks debate on future of traditional Italian cafes

Starbucks has revealed the site of the Seattle group's first coffee bar in Italy in a daring attempt to sell espresso back to the Italians and tap into Italy's dolce vita to boost the brand's premium offering back home in the US.

The world’s largest coffee chain will open its first premium “roastery” outlet outside the US and China in Italy’s business capital, Milan, sparking lively local debate on whether the arrival threatens traditional “mom and pop” coffee bars. At 25,500sq ft, the Starbucks roastery, in size at least, has no local equivalent.

Before an audience of top Italian entrepreneurs from the fashion and food industries, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, who attributes his original idea for the chain to a visit to Milan and Verona in 1983, said it was the "culmination of a great dream".

“There has always been a missing link to the success we have had and the growth and development we have had because we have not entered Italy,” he said, beneath frescoes at Milan’s city hall flanked by mayor Giuseppe Sala.

The site will be the former headquarters of Italy’s national post office in the city, a sprawling Liberty-style building minutes’ walk from the city-centre Piazza del Duomo.

Lively debate

The opening of the first Starbucks in the home of the espresso has sparked lively debate in Italy about whether the global brand will crush traditional Italian coffee bars.

The roastery is Starbucks’ premium offering, designed to cater to well-heeled consumers who are driving sales of niche artisan goods. It serves small batch “reserve” coffees in a variety of brewing methods.

Starbucks plans to open 20 roasteries around the world in coming years, as well as 1,000 premium “reserve” outlets.

Rocco Princi, a well-known Milan baker who has created a chain of stores selling freshly baked goods and coffee, said he had been asked by investors from "China, India, America" to buy his brand and had refused. But he was convinced by Mr Schultz's roastery concept after being flown out to Seattle to inspect it.

The undisclosed deal with Starbucks, which will see freshly baked Princi brioches, croissant, cookies and bread in Starbucks roasteries, is a chance to “introduce Italian artisan baking to people all over the world,” Mr Princi said.

As well as Princi’s food, the roasteries will also offer early evening “mixology” of cocktails, a nod to Milan’s local after-work aperitivo culture.

Five years

Starbucks’ arrival in Italy has been mooted for more than five years. Mr Schultz said the Milan roastery was planned as the first of many stores in the country. Property has already been earmarked for more outlets in Milan.

Brunello Cucinelli, the billionaire founder behind the eponymous luxury brand, told the Financial Times he did not believe the roastery would have "any impact on the traditional Italian coffee bars where you stand up at the bar and have your brioche and cappuccino in the morning".

“It is a different thing culturally,” he said. “It is about American coffee and socialising for hours in a Starbucks.”

The presentation of the Milan site comes as Starbucks faces a backlash and calls for a boycott from Donald Trump supporters in the US over Mr Schultz's pledge to hire 10,000 immigrants to work in his stores.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017