After 34 years, Starbucks is plunging into the delicious, daunting world of Italian coffee culture

Dark, bitter, delicious.
Dark, bitter, delicious.
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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In Italy, even small-town sports bars and roadside service stations will serve you a beautifully made cappuccino. Starbucks, the world’s biggest coffee seller, has been eyeing the Italian market for years, and now, according to CEO Howard Shultz, it’s ready to make the leap.

Shultz visited Milan back in the 1980s, when Starbucks’ global domination was a distant dream. The Italian city’s vibrant café culture inspired the Seattle-based coffee chain’s approach, spurring it to become almost ubiquitous in some urban areas. But the Italian market itself remained daunting and elusive.

A year ago, Starbucks said it would open its first Italian store in Milan in early 2017, and that the move would be characterized by “great humility and respect” for Italy’s coffee traditions. That store didn’t materialize, and instead a new plan was unveiled today for a huge coffee roastery, due to open in 2018 in a grand former post office on Piazza Cordusio, in the very heart of Milan.

“This store will be the culmination of a great dream of mine—34 years in the making—to return to Milan with one of the most immersive, magical retail experiences in the world,” Shultz said in a statement.

Once the roastery is open, a “small number” of Starbucks cafés will open across Milan during 2018, the company said, again noting that they would take a “respectful and measured approach” to expansion in Italy. The chain is partnering with Rocco Princi, an artisan baker with stores in Milan and London, for the roastery venture.

Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, welcomed the investment. He may not have much choice. Italy’s economy is stagnant, and ever-present political instability slows down reforms to tackle thorny problems, like high youth unemployment.

Italy probably doesn’t need more coffee shops, but it’s certainly thirsty for cash.