Why Starbucks Won’t [insert adjective here] Italian Coffee Culture


Starbucks will open their first Italian location in Milan in 2017. Let the baristi lament! Savor a final espresso! No, wait. Starbucks arrival won’t stop Italian coffee culture. The focacceria and Italian food survived McDonald’s arrival (1985, Bolzano); the local bar and Italian coffee can resist Starbucks. Neither space replicates the market niche the other occupies. Whereas the Italian bar offers coffee and community, Starbucks offers space and anonymity.

Italy has a tangled relationship with Americanization, industrialization and consumerism. Until the Marshall plan helped kick-start Italy’s boom economico in 1950s, most Italian families couldn’t support the consumer-driven lifestyles glamorized in their favorite Hollywood films. Yet neither the major political parties at the time (the Partito Communista Italiana and the Democrati Cristiani) wanted Italians to adopt consumer morals, which they viewed as threatening to social wellbeing. Soon families gathered around the TV set to watch Carosello, a half-hour program that showed only commercials. Average Italians relished indulging their long-held desires for glamour and novelty. Italy was becoming a country of consumers.

Yet resistance continued. Supermarkets remained rare until the 1970s. American television gained force in the eighties. Mickey Mouse comics remain (in-part) generated internally. Although consumerism shifted Italian habits, American-consumerism continued to remain one-step removed from mass culture.

In this sense, Starbucks enters a market characterized by resistance, which there is no reason to believe it will overcome. The phenomenon Starbucks is 'rocking', 'struggling against' and 'threateningmust be identified. Is it Italian coffee culture? Italian bar culture? Italian conviviality? The impossibility of finding working wifi? Italian interpretations of American coffee culture? Saying Starbucks threatens Italian coffee culture is sensational journalism that negates analysis.

The Bagel Factory

Breaking down the arguments for and against Starbucks in Italy begins to reveal why a disappearance of current Italian coffee culture is doubtful:

Claim number one: Starbucks will end Italian coffee culture.

This assertion depends on two flawed assumptions, the first being that Italian coffee culture exists and the second being that Italian coffee culture has resisted external influences until now. From North to South, there are more differences than similarities in the coffees Italians drink. Neapolitans sip the dense shots of woody Caffè Kimbo while Pavese prefer longer shots of toasty Caffè Janko. The Bolognese might enjoy a chocolaty marocchino in the afternoon, while in Sicily a caffè freddo calls for gelato. Trieste’s coffee terminology exists nowhere else. Italian coffee culture resists a simple classification.

Not only is Italian coffee culture diverse, it’s in dialogue with drinking trends from abroad. La Marzocco’s cult-status among so-called third wave cafes has pushed them to develop new technologies to increase the barista’s control. In Italy, the presence of American-style coffee houses such as Arnold Coffee, Busters, The Bagel Factory and California Kitchen have popularized flavored lattes and American desserts. Italian coffee culture is not static. In order to destroy Italian coffee culture, Starbucks would have to first create it.

Claim two: Starbucks will end Italy’s convivial bar atmosphere.

This claim implies that bars and Starbucks occupy the same niche. Whereas the bar connects individuals to their community, Starbucks connects individuals to the web. Starbucks could build new communities, but even Italians who drink coffee at Starbucks can enjoy an aperitivo or quick lunch at the bar. Italians might head to Starbucks for American food like Americans go for Italian. Starbucks never destroyed the American diner, nor the English Pub and is unlikely to begin with the Italian.

Claim three: Starbucks will end the impossibility of accessing free wifi.

Although Starbucks may provide an impetus for the country to re-examine how they provide internet, the company is unlikely to revolutionize Italy’s relationship with the net straightaway. Currently, wifi in Italy usually requires an Italian phone number. While Starbucks will likely make wifi a selling point, its unlikely free wifi regardless of country code will be on the menu in the early days. Yet, they may exert pressure to change or help to create a culture of Internet still alien to the country, where only 60% of Italians connect on a daily basis.

Starbucks cannot destroy Italian coffee culture and its institutions because it operates in a different market niche and provides a new service to a new clientele. The chain’s relative novelty, however, makes it threatening. Although Italians will continue to consume their caffè al banco, the competition will cause Italians to re-evaluate their concept of time. These changes won’t impact the society overnight. By entering the Italian market in Milan, Starbucks is entering a market already conversant in Italy-America hybrid culture. The question that remains is how Italians will use these spaces. Will they see them as American? Will they attempt to integrate it into their bar structure? Will it become the freelancer’s office? Will it be a secondary library when institutional ones close for the weekend? How will other businesses internalize this message? Starbucks entry into Italy’s coffee market demonstrates that the country’s notion of time is shifting.