Buongiorno, Starbucks

The Seattle-based company is finally making a foray into the finicky coffee market that inspired its culture.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Though Starbucks may be a 45-year-old company that originally sprung like a caffeinated dappling out of the soil of West Coast coffee culture, according to the liturgy, the behemoth under CEO Howard Schultz owes its spirit and soul to Italy:

Thirty-three years ago, Schultz took his first business trip to Milan and Verona, a journey that changed his life forever. Inspired by the craftsmanship of the Milanese barista, the spirit of the Italian people, their passion for community, their friendliness and taste for quality, Schultz’s vision for Starbucks began to take root.

Sixty-seven countries and 22,000-plus stores later, Starbucks is finally setting its sights on its first outpost in Italy for 2017, which Schultz announced over the weekend during a Fashion Week visit to Milan.

“Now we’re going to try, with great humility and respect, to share what we’ve been doing and what we’ve learned through our first retail presence in Italy,” said Schultz.

This seems like a big deal for Starbucks. Coffee is intricately linked to local custom (particularly in Italy) and Starbucks is broadly associated with super-sized American ubiquity.

The company’s various gambits always garner attention and derision, be it housing assistance for employees in China and the United Kingdom or employee initiatives for higher education, to wittingly or unwittingly mediating racial and religious discourse in the United States.

In Italy, where coffee is religion, how Starbucks functions as a state seems like a sideshow. “I think young people will try it out, for curiosity,” the owner of a century-old coffee bar in central Milan told The New York Times, “but I doubt it will become a major player in Italy. We worship coffee in Italy, while Americans drink coffee on the go in large cups. It’s two extremely different cultures.”

There are plenty of reasons to think that the company will have a tough time making converts. Starbucks has struggled in Vietnam and notoriously failed in Israel, two countries with entrenched coffee cultures and markets. Nevertheless, after some stumbles, the company did manage to find some success in Europe, including in Austria, which many credit with birthing the world’s coffeehouse culture.

“The dream of the company always has been to sometime complete the circle and open in Italy, but we haven't been ready,” Schultz said.

In a nod to Italian custom, the first outlet in Milan will feature a coffee bar and, in a nod to tourist mania, wireless Internet.