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Starbucks Faces Struggle to Take on Italian Coffee Traditions

5 minute read

Like the tides of the sea, an Italian caffé – or bar – has its recognizable rhythms. There’s a rush of office workers at the start of the day, crowding three or four deep at the counter for a quick espresso before their shift begins. And then, just before 10 a.m., another wave: shopkeepers on their way to work.

Davide Casali, 43, a barista at Caffè San Silvestro in downtown Rome, has the timing down to the minute. The busiest time, he says, is right after lunch; it runs from about 1:30 to 2:50 p.m., giving the last of his customers ten minutes to get back to their desks. “Of course, in the summer it’s totally different,” he says. “That’s when everybody’s at the beach.”

These predictable ebbs and flows are just one aspect of the entrenched coffee culture that Starbucks can expect to confront when the Seattle-based chain opens its first store in Italy early next year. More than 30 years after the company’s CEO Howard Schultz opened his first location after being overcome by caffeinated inspiration on a trip to Milan, Starbucks is going to try to sell its Americanized experience to the country that arguably started it all.

It can expect a challenge. Italians simply drink their coffee differently from the rest of the world. In Italy, a cup of coffee is not something to be lingered over. It’s something close to a cigarette break – a ten-minute pause in the middle of the workday. “In America, you have fast food, and for us, lunch and dinner are long rituals.” says Saverio Ciccazzo, 53, Caffè San Silvestro’s manager. “But then, when you drink you coffee, you take your time and sit. For us, it’s something quick, standing up, in a hurry.”

Ciccazzo’s café is decorated in a traditional style: brown-and-white checkerboard marble floors, a travertine countertop, and tulip-shaped glass chandeliers. Casali and the other baristas wear brass-buttoned black vests over white shirts. Water glasses are kept behind the counter by the sink, but the cups for coffee are stacked on top of the espresso machine, so that they’re hot to the touch and won’t cool down the liquid after it is pressed through the grounds.

As Ciccazzo speaks, customers come and go: office workers, students, a couple of Carabinieri military police in their braided uniforms. Indoors, the tables are unoccupied. Outside, the only people seated are tourists, hunched over their cups and maps. Casali does keep paper cups behind the counter. At 10 oz, they are huge by Italian standards, but small for Starbucks. Except for the occasional office worker bringing back a cappuccino for his workmate, only tourists – most often Americans – ask for them. “They want it big, always everything big,” says Casali.

And then there’s the cost. An espresso at the counter at Caffè San Silvestro costs 0.90 euros ($1), and Italians, accustomed to drinking several espressos during the day, shy from paying anything more. One reason that so many Italians drink their coffee standing up is that bars charge customers much more if they sit down.

Still, habits are changing, even in Italy. Until about a decade ago, customers only ordered espressos and cappuccinos, says Ciccazzo. The only variation was decaf. Now there’s a growing demand for drinks like caffé schiumato (topped with a bit of milk froth), caffè Marocchino (with froth and cocoa powder), and caffè alla nocciola (with cream and hazelnut paste), as well as drinks made from ginseng or barley.

For Italians, lattes and cappuccinos are drunk in the morning and occasionally as part of a mid-afternoon snack; never after lunch or dinner. A small percentage of Italians do drink caffè Americanos, a shot of espresso mixed with hot water. “People used to make fun of diluted American coffee,” he says. “Now, sometimes they ask for it. I guess it’s a change in fashion.”

At the counter, a couple of architecture students, Domenico Convertini, 26, and Stefano Di Biase, 25, have come in for an espresso break. They lived a year in Bremen, Germany, where they would occasionally stop by a Starbucks for a cup of coffee. “An espresso cost €2.20 ($2.40), but it cost the same everywhere, so that’s what you paid,” says Convertini.

They think Starbucks could have a chance of success with their generation, not so much for its coffee, but as a place to gather with friends. For many in Italy, the coffee chain’s image is of something international, something cool. “Here we study at home or at the library,” says Di Biase. “But in Germany we’d sometimes meet to study in a Starbucks.”

As for Casali, he’s never heard of the chain. And so he calls over one of his younger coworkers, a tall, thin barista named Massimo Martorina, for his opinion. “I think it can do OK, like McDonald’s or other chains,” says Martorina, 31. “But it won’t crush or replace the Italian traditions.”

Once Convertini and Di Biase have finished their coffee and gone, only a couple of other customers and the tourists outside remain. Casali expects a slow trickle throughout the afternoon, then in the evening, short bursts before the theater and after dinner. And then the doors will close, and the next morning the cycle will begin again.

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