MILAN (AFP) - United States coffee giant Starbucks opened its first branch in Italy on Thursday (Sept 6), with the sprawling Milan "roastery" at the forefront of an ambitious plan to conquer the spiritual home of espresso.
The Seattle-based multinational is taking on a mainstay of Italian culture: a thimbleful of powerful thick black liquid served at the bar in cafés throughout the country six billion times a year, according to Italian catering federation FIPE.
It's not surprising, then, that Starbucks, which is well-established elsewhere in Europe, has delayed its entry into the Italian market, originally planned for early 2017.
Outspoken former chief executive Howard Schultz - who quit the chain in June amid talk that he could run for the White House in 2020 - has repeatedly said that the company would come to Italy with "humility".
"During my first trip to Milan in 1983, I was captivated by the sense of community I found in the city's espresso bars - the moments of human connection that passed so freely and genuinely between baristas and their customers," said Mr Schultz, now chairman emeritus after masterminding Starbucks worldwide expansion.
The company hopes that its 2,300 sq m Reserve Roastery - "the most beautiful Starbucks in the world" - will entice customers in for a new coffee experience.
'THE RIGHT MOMENT'
Mr Matteo Figura of market researchers NPD Group said that Starbucks is entering the Italian market at the right moment.
"At the moment, chains account for only 20 per cent of Italy's catering trade, the rest are independent businesses. But chains are expanding rapidly, more than four per cent" a year, he told AFP.
The way that Italians consume coffee has also changed a lot in recent years. While previously an espresso was "an opportunity to have an energy 'shot'", consumers today increasingly care more about quality and the experience they can have.
Starbucks will primarily target millennials between 18 and 34 years old, said Mr Figura, adding that the Italian market has room for both traditional cafés and Starbucks, as they target different consumers.
"Cracking the home of coffee culture is a tough challenge, with many Italians deriding the move as ridiculous," said Mr Alexandre Loeur, analyst at Euromonitor International.
But "while snobbery might initially prevail, the younger generations are more open to the type of speciality coffee offered by the Seattle-based brand", he said.
"If we look at France, another country with a strong coffee culture, millennial consumers are undoubtedly responding well to speciality coffees. We can therefore infer that Starbucks could do well (in Italy), in the medium to long term."
"It remains to be seen if they'll get a foothold in Italy," said Mr Alessandro Panzarino, who runs the Cafe Martini, around the corner from the new Starbucks.
He admits to being a little fearful of this "colossus" and expects there to be an initial boom in trade at his new neighbour.
"Then we have to see if people get bored after a while," he said, and if people are happy to spend so much, with a traditional Milanese espresso going for around €1 (S$1.60).
One customer who won't be swayed is Mr Simone Dusi, 35.
"I really don't like Starbucks coffee," he told AFP. "I like strong coffee (so) absolutely no way to diluted coffee or variants like frappuccino!"
The company, which had a turnover of US$22.4 billion (S$30.8 billion) in 2017, has almost 29,000 cafes in 77 countries, including 12,000 in the US and 3,300 in China.
Starbucks plans to close 150 branches in the coming year because of a slowdown in the US market.