October 19, 2007

The coffee war

While the front pages talk about the ongoing war in Iraq, a possible return of the cold war with Russia and the shadow of civil war in Pakistan, the economic pages reported on the coffee war with an article entitled, "Offensive Anti-Starbucks by the Caffè Made in Italy". The "enemy" to beat is Starbucks in this economic and cultural war.

The Italians have launched pre-emptive action. Lavazza is aiming to bring coffee-shops to every street corner in Europe, starting with Spain, France and Portugal, and even as far as India. Illy, instead, has chosen the route of culture (through founding L'università del caffè in Trieste) and diplomacy (an agreement with Coca Cola to launch a joint line of high-end coffee products) and Bialetti is opening a chain of stores selling its famous moka coffee makers, together with a cup of cappuccino. The real coffee king, though, is the Zanetti Beverage Group which already runs a franchising of over 700 Italian coffee shops around the world.

The question is, can they hold the Goliath at bay? Maybe not elsewhere, but hopefully in Italy, which already has a well-defined coffee culture rooted in everyday life and intimately connected to the concept of "your local bar" with its endless morning conversations, meetings and memories. I can even see my local bar from my balcony. It is run by Mario, his wife, two of his three sons and one daughter-in-law.
In addition to homemade muffins for breakfast and a good selection of wines to take home for dinner,
they also have a small trattoria in the backroom with a few daily dishes.

Besides running a bar, Mario is a local figure full of historical knowledge. He recently published a book in which he recounts the lives of various characters that lived our neighborhood during his childhood, a tribute to Monteverde poco fa.
Personally, he has given me a great running route in Villa Pamphili, passed on keys to guests and messages to friends, and told me many stories.

Why would I want an over sized, over priced, milky, sweet, syrupy concoction in an over sized plastic cup in an environment that is the same all over the world in the place of a cappuccino da Mario?

A true global mystery.

a domani.


Deirdré living in Italy said...

In June I attended a conference in Milan on "Doing Business in India" for Italians. The first and most imporessive speaker was the man from Lavazza who explained exactly what they're doing there: they have bought India's existing Barista chain of coffee shops, plus another company that supplies coffee and equipment into companies. So they've beaten Starbucks to the punch.

peewee said...

Dear Larc, as often happens with your stories, often accompanied by wonderful photos, you make me delightfully and benevolently envious and dying to take advantage of such experience generously offered. Thank goodness I live just around the corner so can try Mario's, and maybe leave a book to be delivered to you.

Roam2Rome said...

Well yes, there are many large important issues going on, and small ones count, too :)

I, personally, am glad to hear they wont take Starbuck's move sitting down. Italy *is* a coffee culture, and I prefer true authentic coffee at a local family owned cafe with a good atmosphere, anytime!

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to why you feel it has to be either Starbucks or Mario's (for example). Yes, they both offer coffee but they offer such different products that I highly doubt that one would disrupt the other. I love Italian coffee but there are times that I'd like a Starbucks coffee too. Starbucks may be a "Goliath" but Italian coffee and coffee shops offer such different products and service that I see no risk of them becoming extinct. We all know there are plenty of locals and foreigners who would love to see a few Starbucks open but that, in no way, shape, or form, would be a threat to Italy's coffee tradition. I say bring it on, the more variety, the better!

Anonymous said...

What I don't like about Starbucks coming to Italy is that we already have the real deal. I mean, and Elizabeth correct me if I'm wrong, don't they use fake Italian names for their drinks? I think it's a way to say "we learned from the best in this field". Other big chains like McDonalds brought products (and the lifestyle that goes with them) that were born in America, they exported it worldwide and it's OK. But, an American corporation selling "latte" in Italy?? Can you picture that?

Elizabeth said...

Deirdrè -- thanks for the additional info.

peewee (Pat is that you??) -- what not just ring my doorbell instead and we can go for a coffee together.

roam2rome -- I agree, Starbucks is fake Italian coffee culture warmed over. Although it nice to have a place to sit without having to listen to Eros Ramazzotti on the radio....

anon -- "more variety the better" said like a true American! The right to choice is very high on our value scale, even at the expense of good taste.
see today's post for more...

Enrico -- They do use fake Italian names for their mixtures (see today's post...). The original idea of Starbucks came to its founder after a trip to Milan, so the idea was to import and recreate the Italian coffee culture, USA style which makes it very strange to see it rebound back to Italy. We would all have to start ordering either Italian "latte" or American "latte" -- strange indeed!

Kataroma said...

My boyfriend (who has lived in Rome almost as long as you!) thinks Starbucks will succeed in Italy for the same reason McDonald's did. It's got that American glamour - plus it's fast, efficient and you know exactly what you're going to get. Plus a lot of their drinks are very sugary and Italians love sugar. When it comes down to it, the average non-elite Italian loves sugary drinks (and fatty burgers) just as much as the average American.

I went to McDonalds in Pompei for Sunday lunch a couple of years back when my friend and I got sick of the local bars trying to rip us off - and virtually the entire town was there, grandmas and kids in tow. It was quite a scene. Italians LOVE McDonalds and, in fact, McD's makes more money in Italy per capita than it does in the US. Boyfriend thinks Starbucks will be the same.

Unfortunately, Mario doesn't have a team of marketing gurus working for him...

Anonymous said...

I think there's a big difference between MacDonalds and Starbucks: McD is plain American fast food, people know what they're in for when they go there; Starbucks is a whole different story, as I said in my previous comment. Prices are important too. How much is cup of coffee at SB? (that's not a rhetorical question, I really don't know).
As for McDonalds in Pompei, maybe all the people there were sick of being ripped off as well!

Elizabeth said...

This has turned out to be a great topic! Chi sa...Starbucks or no. I would love to research this further for an article. Have to ask the editor at The Roman Forum magazine (I am a regular collaborator -- check the October and upcoming November issues).

Enrico, we had a Starbucks breakfast at the LA airport (the only choice) before getting on our flight and it was expensive. It was hard, but we managed to get just plain coffee.

Kataroma said...

Enrico - the people we saw in McDonalds were not tourists - so I doubt the bar owners would have ripped them off like they tried to with us. They appeared to be native Pompeians having their Sunday lunch at McD's along with their extended families. They were mostly speaking dialect and all knew eachother. We were the only foreigners in there in fact!

Anonymous said...

"The right to choice is very high on our value scale, even at the expense of good taste...."

"Good taste"? As I'm sure you know, taste is very subjective. For some people- a sugary beverage tastes better than a bitter dense coffee. So who are we to say which is "good" or "bad"? It's different, that's the bottom line. And yes, having different options is a great thing, in any place.