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Si, Certo! Starbucks Could Actually Take Off In Italy

03/23/2016 03:37 EDT | Updated 03/24/2017 05:12 EDT
Edward Smith/EMPICS Entertainment
General view of Starbucks Coffee in central London

Like bringing coal to Newcastle. That is what came to mind when I read that Starbucks was set to open its first Italian location in Milan in early 2017. Better off trying to introduce something they don't have much of in Italy and could really use -- screen windows and clothes dryers come to mind.

They've got an awful lot of coffee in Italy already, and they love and drink it in their own style: typically, espresso gulped down quickly, served not with a cruller, but a cornetto or biscotto.

Coffee in Italy is not something you nurse: you can add a dash of foamy milk and make it a macchiato; add some water and call it Americano; you can have a cappuccino (not after noon, though); you can even have a corretto, an espresso with a shot of grappa or brandy.

But you don't take unreasonable amounts of time with it or order it in sizes. And a big frothy drink with flavoured syrup and whipped cream? Well, non si fa. It isn't done.

And you don't walk down the street drinking it. Italians usually walk down the street carrying their cell phones in one hand, screaming "ti sento malissimo" ("I can hardly hear you"), as they juggle purses and man-purses and shopping bags with the other. Seriously, their addiction to cell phones makes us North Americans look like amateurs.

(If I ever write my book about Italy, it is going to be called Ti Sento Malissimo.)

And if it isn't a phone they are carrying, it will be an ice cream (cone or cup), at least in the warm weather. Italy is probably the only country where one routinely sees groups of well-dressed men standing around outside having intense discussions about politics, madly gesticulating and screaming about taxes and strikes, as each of them polishes off a gelato.

While Starbucks has followed a rocky path in Europe, what I noticed the last two times I visited Paris was that Starbucks seemed to be very popular with a young demographic.

So a big non si fa came to mind when I considered the idea of Starbucks in Italy. That is, until I thought about the power of the brand, something not to be trivialized.

During my last extended stay in Italy -- just over a year ago -- I was studying at a university in a small city in Umbria, approximately mid-calf on the boot. A precious item I had brought from home was a plastic Starbucks cup, the kind that can accommodate the larger drink sizes. I knew I would need some caffeinated support as I ducked Vespas and Fiats and weaved my way through winding and steep cobblestone streets.

I also knew that takeout coffee -- a portare via -- is an oddity in Italy. If you ask for it, chances are you will get your coffee in a small Styrofoam cup with no lid, handed to you by someone who has sussed out -- if they hadn't already from your appearance and accent -- that you are foreign.

At my local bar, I occasionally saw Italians drink a coffee on-site and then take another with them, but such occurrences were rare.

Most mornings I walked to my classes with my Starbucks cup in hand and, invariably, I would be stopped by Italians -- younger ones -- asking me excitedly where I had got it. Had a Starbucks opened? Had my answer been "si," I am certain they all would have rushed there in a flash. Once in my classes -- full of students from every continent -- I would be barraged with the same eager questions.

The experience made me think of another place I once called home, France. When the first Starbucks opened in Paris, over a decade ago, doomsayers were out en force.

And while Starbucks has followed a rocky path in Europe, what I noticed the last two times I visited Paris -- in 2014 and 2015 -- was that Starbucks seemed to be very popular with a young demographic. Virtually every Starbucks I visited was bustling with younger French people and yes, with foreigners searching for familiarity (and WiFi).

But the crowds that I saw in various Parisian Starbucks were primarily made up of French young professionals, and -- in the just-after-school hours -- teenagers. The latter like feeling cool, of course, emulating American celebrities they see carrying Starbucks on the big and small screens.

As in North America, Starbucks in Paris is not cheap, but it has architecture, pastries and coffees that reflect local tastes while adding to the local colour.

Adding to the local colour in Italy will depend on selecting locations carefully. I suspect that Milan -- by Italian standards a very cosmopolitan city, popular with tourists and fashionistas -- is a great place to begin.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said that a trip to Italy in the 1980s was an inspiration to him, and that he is approaching this Italian adventure with "with great humility and respect."

I would like to recommend he also approach it with a mind to adding phone-recharging nooks in every Italian Starbucks.

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