Roughly three decades after Italy’s espresso bars inspired Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz to reinvent American coffee, Frappuccino look-alikes—renamed Frappuccios—are venturing into Italian territory and onto Italian palates.
The country hails espresso as something of a national symbol and has so far eschewed penetration by global coffee titans like Starbucks Corp. Yet Arnold Coffee, a Milan-based start-up, opened its doors a year and a half ago and has been offering caramel mochas, chai lattes and filtered coffee, along with donuts and free Wi-Fi. It has since added two more stores and plans to open a third café in Milan by late October. “We want to be an American-style coffee bar,” said co-owner and founder Andrea Comelli.
But in a country with nearly 136,000 espresso bars (over eight times the roughly 16,700 Starbucks stores in the world), the task isn’t easy. Still, Arnold’s coffee shops are crowded. Some customers love holding onto a big, steaming hot, to-go cup rather than the typical small ceramic espresso cup. Others embrace with gusto the complicated coffee brews. For others still, the lure lies in the comfy armchairs. (In most Italian coffee bars customers are expected to clear the spot after gulping down a few millilitres of espresso.)
Most people, though, aren’t doing away with old habits. Espresso wasn’t on offer when Arnold Coffee first opened, but it quickly joined the menu because “people were coming in and turning away as soon as they found out we didn’t serve it,” said Comelli.
If a chain of American-style cafés emerged on a national scale, it could provide Starbucks with the key to finally enter the Italian market, said Cesare Zamboni, a lawyer in Bologna who advises Italian coffee maker IllyCaffè SpA on its café business.
“It’s more out of humility and respect that we’re not in Italy,” Starbucks told the Financial Times newspaper in 2007. But Starbucks’s absence from Italy has more to do with the inability to “find the right local partner” in a highly fragmented market than fear of measuring up to the country’s strong coffee culture and skilled baristas, said Zamboni.