Great humility and respect are not necessarily the first qualities that come to mind when you think of world-girdling coffee chain Starbucks. Personally, I think: outsize paper cups, people in hurry, and an ever-present snake of a queue to use the single lavatory. But that's just me.
Humility and Respect, those two messianic qualities, will, apparently, be hot-iron branded onto the company's latest expansion plans, according to Howard Schultz, the CEO and chairman. And as well they might, considering the place they intend to open next is Italy.
On Monday, in a release to the press, the company explained why it was attempting to take coals to Newcastle. The statement began with the line, “It's a dream more than 30 years in the making”, and went on to explain that it was in a Milanese espresso bar that Schultz, the marketing director of the then-small, Seattle-based company, was first inspired to turn Starbucks into what it is today – a coffee chain with 23000 links. What got him going was that these bars were not only a place for “the romance and theatre of coffee” but that visiting them was part of a “morning ritual”, which created “a sense of community”.
Presumably to make sure that Starbucks doesn't scare the horses, the plan is to partner with all-Italian retail and real estate conglomerate Percassi. Percassi will help the coffee giant with the first stores, which are set to open in 2017 in as yet unspecified cities (although Schultz is pictured in front of the Duomo in Milan on the mail-out, so draw your own conclusion). “We are confident that Italian people are ready to live the Starbucks experience,” says Antonio Percassi, the company's president.
It is a strange homage, to attempt to throttle the thing that inspires you. But business is business, I suppose, and Italy is another market ready for the taking. And in all likelihood they will capture it. How could they not? If McDonald's can take France, that country of de Gaulle and 246 different types of cheese, anything is possible.
It is all very well to blether on about Italy's unique coffee culture, the cappuccino with breakfast, the espresso after lunch, and all that Fellini business. But Starbucks knows what it is about – quickness and convenience and a caffeinated hit on the hop. And the cities of Italy, like the cities of England and Chile and America and Brazil and all the other crowded towns in which the chain operates, contain people in a rush, people who feel tired and want to feel a little more alert. They are – we are, even – a world-spanning constituency. And as the flow of information, and the pace of communication, becomes greater and faster, we grow more similar, more set in our modern ways: zombies with hands clawed around paper cups, sipping and zooming, like little exocets running on caffeine and cortisol. There's no time – not even a fraction of a minute – to lean against il banco for your espresso. It has to be “to go”.
Perhaps Starbucks' plans should be a source of mourning. But, if so, that mourning shouldn't be for some airy concept like, “Italian coffee culture” but for ourselves – rushing here and there, with not a moment to sit and pause and drink our coffee in peace.
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