Starbucks has come full circle.
More than three decades ago, during a trip to Milan, Howard Schultz was inspired to turn the coffeehouse chain into a space that served as a community gathering place. Now Schultz, the company's CEO, has announced Starbucks is opening its first location in Italy, in the heart of Milan's city center.
One might think Italian coffeehouses would be shaken by the looming arrival of this global java giant. But many are saying, bring it on.
Set to open in late 2018, Starbucks' first outpost in the espresso motherland will be a Roastery, one of its higher-end, sprawling locations where beans are roasted in-house and visitors can witness the entire coffee-making process, from green beans to finished cup. Roastery locations also feature drinks not found at regular Starbucks, like the Shakerato, an espresso shaken with ice and a dash of demerara syrup.
The Milan Roastery will be housed in the historic Palazzo Delle Poste building, in Piazza Cordusio, just a three-minute walk from the core of the city's financial district.
Schultz traveled to Milan for the first time in 1983. At that time, he was the marketing director for Starbucks. Experiencing Italy's robust, centuries' old coffee culture, with baristas preparing espresso in Milan coffeehouses, was eye-opening for Schultz. It influenced his whole concept for the Starbucks brand.
"I was overwhelmed with a gut instinct that this is what we should be doing," Schultz later recalled.
So why did it take Starbucks more than 30 years to come back to where it all began?
Partly, the delay was out of "our deep respect for the Italian people and their rich heritage and culture around the art of coffee," a Starbucks spokesperson told NPR in an email. "We are coming to Italy to learn from the best, but also to bring our own unique offer to the Italian consumer: a third place between home and work to take time and enjoy a perfectly crafted cup of coffee. We believe that there is a strong consumer base in Italy."
As a native Italian, I should note that bars, establishments where you can get both coffee drinks and alcoholic ones, have long offered a "third place" in everyday life for my fellow countrymen and women (and for me).
Working with Italian licensee and business partner Percassi, Starbucks will also open "a small number" of regular coffeehouses in Milan for the balance of 2018, the company said. All told, Starbucks says the stores will create around 350 jobs in Italy.
One thing is for sure: Starbucks will face fierce competition. There are some 149,300 bars in Italy, according to the 2016 annual report issued by Federazione Italiana Pubblici Esercizi (FIPE), an Italian network of 300,000 companies in the catering, restaurant, tourism and entertainment industry. Italy is home to almost 61 million people, which means there's one bar per 406 citizens.
"Frankly, I'd be more wary of the Italian bars in my neighborhood than of Starbucks' diluted coffee," says Cristian Marone, co-manager of Bar dei Bossi, a coffeehouse that opened three years ago in Milan, a four-minute walk from Starbucks' forthcoming Roastery location in Piazza Cordusio. "If I ever went to Starbucks, I would feel like a number, not a customer. In our bar, customer care is crucial."
Eleonora Fornaciari, owner of Milan's Caffè Rivoli, is also saying come at me. "Traditional espresso and cappuccino are deeply rooted in our Italian culture," says Fornaciari. She says Starbucks' fancy drinks may appeal to foreigners and curious Italians, but it will never displace authentic Italian coffee.
Plus, pricing will have a big impact on Starbucks' success, she says. According to Fornaciari, customers who order a pastry and a cappuccino while standing in an Italian bar in the Piazza Cordusio area can expect to pay around $3. In the U.S., by contrast, a Starbucks Grande Cappuccino by itself can cost $3.95 before tax.
"Clerks working in that part of the city couldn't afford prices like that," Fornaciari says. "Although executives and lawyers working in Piazza Cordusio could."
One might suppose that another coffeehouse owner, Vito Bossi, 60, would feel most threatened by the coming of Starbucks to Milan. Bossi's coffeehouse, Bar Cordusio, is located right in front of the Palazzo delle Poste building, where Starbucks will open.
But Bossi almost looks forward to the opening, because, he says, he and Starbucks aren't really in the same business.
"We're an Italian bar," Bossi says proudly. "In Italy, few people love Starbucks' products." But he thinks Starbucks' presence will attract more customers and tourists.
"There's going to be business for both of us," he says.