“Globalizing” Italian cities? Starbucks & Co.

Starbucks is a symbol of globalised contemporary urbanism. The coffee company is an emblem of the new metropolis, the evolution of the long-standing ‘reputation’ of coffee as a sign of modernity, cosmopolitanism and the emergence of a consumer middle-class.

In terms of its economic role, Sassen – the first to theorise the concept – defines the global city as a place of intersections and interactions that transcend the nation but are developed among other metropolis, thus becoming hubs of transnational markets, innovations, banking and finance. The economic and innovative role of these cities ultimately reflects their architecture and lifestyles. Although many cities cannot be defined as global in terms of their financial or economic functions, they are slowly acquiring a ‘global look’, a result of globalization. In this sense, Starbucks is one of the many ‘trends’ that are spreading in every corner of urban areas all over the world.

At the end of last February, Howard Schultz – Starbucks’ number one – announced that the company is ready to venture into the Italian market and open a new store in Milan. It might be surprising to some of you, but there are no Starbucks in Italy. But it’s even more surprising to me that the company is thinking of opening a store in Milan. The concept of Starbucks itself originated from Shultz’ trip to Milan back in 1983, when, observing the Italian ‘theatrical’ ritual of drinking coffee in bars, he decided to bring it back to America and replicate the formula. Basically, Starbucks is supposed to be an Italian style coffee house. To me, however, going to Starbucks in London or in other cities actually highlights the differences between multinational coffee shop chains and Italian bars. The only thing that reminds me of Italy at Starbucks are the names used to indicate the drinks – although that’s confusing too, because they are Italian words but not used with the same meaning (e.g. ‘latte’, in Italian, means simply plain milk). Moreover, the concept of take away coffee in paper cups is not Italian either: coffee breaks mark different moments of the day as a ritual that usually takes place in a bar, specifically at the counter in a typical small ceramic cup or seated in a table – possibly outside. This is not meant to be a criticism to Starbucks as an ‘appropriator’ of the Italian coffee culture but to explain how contradictory is that a company that is supposed to emulate a certain ‘traditional style’, now intends to sell it in the place where the inspiration was taken from.

Practically speaking, there are almost no coffee shop chains in Italian cities – among the 60,0000 bars, less than 1,000 are part of a chain, and they all are part of small Italian, locally-based companies. Furthermore, a regular espresso at the counter in almost any Italian bar costs approximately 0,90€, less than half the cheapest Starbucks coffee beverage sold in other Eurozone cities. Essentially, it won’t even be economically convenient for Italians to buy Starbucks coffee. Nonetheless, I’m not sure if Starbucks in Milan would actually be a failure. On one hand it will give a ‘global’ look to Italy’s financial capital and this would definitely appeal to a certain category of clients: in the end, Starbucks sells a lifestyle. On the other, I have never thought of Italian cities as symbols of a new transnational culture with a ‘global vibe’. The news of Starbucks opening a branch in Italy made me think of Italian cities more generally. Will they ever be – or look – ‘global’?

Milan – similarly to Rome – does not look like a global city to me. Italian high streets certainly provide anything you find in the other European cities, for example in terms of fashion and technology. However, in terms of vibe and atmosphere, it is completely different. Maybe my perceptions are altered by the fact that Italy is home for me – it is that one place that differs from everywhere else. However, I do think that objectively, even the largest Italian cities are more ‘local than global’. To a great extent, this is due to food. This is not to diminish art, architecture, or my beloved Dante, but it is indeed true that food is central in our lives. It’s not simply a matter of what you eat, but how and when. There are McDonald’s and Burger Kings in Italian cities, but they are seen as a ‘once in a while’ American alternative to a typical lunch in a local piadineria or paninoteca. Similarly, there is food diversity, but even the popular Japanese and Chinese restaurants are locally owned – there is no such thing as Wasabi or Itsu. Essentially, food, like coffee, is still a local affair: independent restaurants and bars largely outnumber chains anywhere in Italy. The Starbucks ‘scandal’, in this sense, made me really question this aspect. Will multinational companies ever absorb Italian coffee and food local activities and consequently transform cities?

4 thoughts on ““Globalizing” Italian cities? Starbucks & Co.

  1. I think Starbucks will attract some tourists and curious locals, but the experience of a local café in italy is completely different. Starbucks will have customers, but I think it wont conquer the Roman empire.

    Liked by 1 person

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