In Italy, hole-in-the wall espresso bars in even the smallest towns host a vibrant cafe culture that has been an inspiration and obsession for Howard Schultz, now chairman emeritus of Starbucks, for half his life.
But don’t mistake the company’s entry into the coffee-loving country for an attempt at an Italian-style neighborhood espresso stop. This is a much grander gesture.
A 1983 trip to Italy gave rise to Schultz’s vision for Starbucks as a purveyor not just of coffee beans and equipment, as it was when he joined the company, but espresso beverages and a unique place to drink them.
That pilgrimage – a crucial chapter in the corporate origin story for the Seattle-based coffee giant – culminates with the operatic unveiling Thursday of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan.
The 25,000-square-foot coffee duomo, following the Roastery format’s debut on Capitol Hill in 2014 and in Shanghai last year, was built in a palazzo that once held a post office. A portico is adorned with a Carrara marble statue of a siren, Starbucks’ corporate symbol and a none-too-subtle nod to Schultz’ Siren Retail strategy to move the brand up market, with these glitzy coffee destinations as flagships.
Inside, the company describes hand-chiseled flooring made of local marble of the sort used in the actual Duomo di Milano, the city’s famous cathedral nearby; bar tops carved from Tuscan marble and outfitted with radiant heating; a clackerboard like in Italian train stations to describe the latest specialty roasts; and a massive, augmented-reality-enabled bronze wall depicting Starbucks’ history and coffee-making process.
The company appears to have spared no expense to build what it calls “the most beautiful Starbucks in the world.” A company representative did not respond to a question about the store’s cost. As he broke the news of lower-than-expected profits in June, CEO Kevin Johnson said the company was still evaluating the economics of the Roastery stores, three more of which are planned in New York, Chicago and Tokyo.
In Italy, Starbucks also announced a licensing deal with developer and franchisee Percassi to bring more stores to Milan beginning late this year. With fewer bells and whistles than the Roastery, these outlets may offer a truer gauge of Italian acceptance of Schultz’s take on their passion.
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