I’ve spent the past 34 years of my life with one foot in Italy and the other in the U.S. When I first came to Italy, there was no sense of American consumer culture in the country, but of the years I have watched American culture slowly but surely infect what is considered by many to be the most influential food culture of the world through mass-market food chains. Now, don’t get me wrong… I am a pure capitalist, but this saddens me.
It started in 1986, when McDonald’s opened a “restaurant” in Rome. They couldn’t open a normal store, of course. They opened what was at the time, the largest McD’s in the world. Complete with mosaic waterfalls, a full-service salad station, and so much more. The adults were outraged, but the kids developed a whole new society of McDonald’s lovers. They were known as the “Paninari” – Roman kids that wore American clothes and hung out at McDonald’s.
It didn’t take long before McDonalds spread throughout the country with “normal” stores, then added the “McDrive” (Drive Thru), and became a staple such that I cannot count the number of Italians that would rather have a Big Mac than a plate of Home-Made Carbonara.
That opened the door for more, of course. Burger King swept right in, as did KFC, Subway… and even Domino’s. Yes, Domino’s pizza is in Italy! It has spread so much that the closest city to where I live, with a population of around 40,000 people now has 2 McDonald’s, a Burger King and a KFC.
Side Note: I would not be
complaining if In n' Out
opened here 🙂
OK, so Starbucks was one thing I truly believed could never happen in Italy. I mean, Starbucks was founded by Howard Schultz 35 years ago based on inspiration he had from the traditional Italian coffee bars. These bars are at the core of Italian culture, to the point that you can hardly walk 2 minutes without passing one or two of them. But Starbucks Completely Americanized the concept, creating sugar-laden drinks of every mix and flavor one can imagine, and charging easily 500% what one would pay in Italy.
Furthermore, coffee for an Italian is simply not something you carry around in a paper cup. Oh my God, a paper cup? NEVER!!! And the idea of a Grande Double-Blended Half-Caf Decaf Caramel Macchiato Frappuccino for an Italian? or a Salted Cold Foam Cold Brew? Seriously? 99% of the drinks sold at an Italian coffee bar, are quite simply an espresso or cappuccino, period. Yeah, they have some other drinks, but this is the core. And to carry it away with you? What, are you from Mars?
And Yet, Starbucks Has Finally Landed
Like with that first McDonald’s in Italy 33 years ago, they did not open a normal Starbucks. They clearly realized that would simply not go over with the locals. Instead, they opened a destination. A 25,000 square foot “Reserve Roastery” in the heart of Milan.. An opulent masterpiece of interior design full of marble, stone and bronze, and all sorts of things you won’t find in your neighborhood Starbucks.
For example, they roast the coffee on-site in a roaster featured in the middle of the store. They have a wood-fired oven for pizza, fresh bread and pastries. They feature a cocktail bar with snacks, and oh-so-much-more.
Clearly many think to themselves:
“Wow, this is not a typical Starbucks… I have to see this. ”
I get it, I really do. Just as the first McDonald’s was a masterpiece of its time. They managed to create a true destination experience. It got people to accept them back in 1986, but every single McDonald’s that has opened since (All 566 of them) has been just another McDonald’s. Mostly identical to the ones you have back home.
I don’t only think this will happen with Starbucks. They have told us so.
Normalizing The Brand
McDonald’s surely knew when they opened in Rome, that they had a steep hill to climb in such a food culture as Italy. They had to do something that would really grab attention and curiosity, so they did. They even had massive complaints before opening from locals, citing that the garbage would be huge problem, so McDonald’s hired a team of people the clean up not just McDonald’s garbage, but all garbage within a mile of their first store.
Similarly, many have protested Starbucks. After all, if it catches on, not only can it fundamentally change a core part of Italian culture, but it can put thousands of coffee bars that have existed for centuries in jeopardy. Think about it, how many small hometown coffee roasters had a Starbucks open next store to them during their massive expansion in the states? Why would Italy be any different?
Why This Matters to Me
Like I said, I am “Yay for Capitalism”. Heck, I’m a libertarian, but I think back to 1986 when that first McDonald’s opened. I was 21, and I was one of the first to go check it out. I would even go to to Rome just to get a burger there. But I didn’t envision back then how it would change the Italian landscape as run-of-the-mill McDonald’s spread like a virus. I also didn’t consider how the generation of little kids back in the epicenter of foodie culture then would grow up with fast food as normal. I would never advocate for making laws to stop this, but it saddens me.
I think of Italy as being about 50 years behind the states in many ways, so it is almost like having a crystal ball. 30 years ago, you just didn’t have fast food. Now it is everywhere. 30 years ago, when you went shopping for your food, you went to the local grocer or vegetable stand that grows its own veggies. Today, every town has a nearby national supermarket. 30 years ago, you had the little local hardware store. Today we have the Italian version of Home Depot. And now Starbucks is here to take on the core of Italian culture: The coffee bar. I think it gets to me quite. bit because of what our company does. Our Cooking Vacations in Italy are all about the old-fashioned way of doing things, and we see that slowly slipping away.
If an Olive Garden opens in Rome, I’m just gonna pack it up 🙂
Co-Founder of Culture Discovery Vacations. I am a native American from Los Angeles that has been living with one foot in Italy and the other in the US for more than 30 years. I usually write about oddities I see in Italian culture from an American perspective, and the humor I find in it. However, after decades of living in both countries, I often see the reverse as well. That is, where the Italians got it right, and we can certainy learn from them!