Starbucks just opened its first store in Italy, and many are heralding it as a big change for the country, and indeed it is. But it's not a good change. It's yet the latest sign that America's monolithic fast food companies are taking over the world, replacing local community culture, all without offering an ounce of real quality.
Many see Italy as coffee's "spiritual home." The country first crafted espresso in the 18th century, and has since cultivated a variety of beverages, as well as daily rituals, based on the concoction. It has characteristically boasted small neighborhood coffee bars and a rather protectionist attitude toward foreign big business.
"Our bars are usually one-room temples, small and snug where customers literally rub shoulders and step on each others' feet, calling out loud to attract the barman's attention," Italian reporter Silvia Marchetti wrote last week for CNN.
According to a humorously rhapsodic article on Starbucks' website, it was a trip to Italy that inspired former CEO Howard Schultz to start Starbucks in the first place. He "returned home … inspired and determined to build a company with the same nucleus of warmth, community, and human connection." And for its first Italian location, in Milan, Starbucks has gone all-out: It boasts hand-carved Carrera marble and giant bronze bird cages, coffee-inspired cocktails, and a wood-fired oven for baked goods, and an extra cozy atmosphere.
There are doubtless some Starbucks stores in the world that offer an authentic communal experience. Some locations boast fancier drink options and baked goods that don't look or taste like cardboard. The company has recently tried to boost its hipster cred with Starbucks Reserve, premium stores which offer fancier latte art and less-burnt brews.
But the average Starbucks — the ones you're likely to see at your local strip mall or next to the nearest grocery store — are cluttered spaces, short on warmth and high on sugar-laden lattes (looking at you, PSL). Starbucks, for most of us, is the McDonald's of coffee. With the opening of Starbucks in Milan, Marchetti adds, "It's as if Pizza Hut opened a restaurant in Naples, or Baskin-Robbins an ice-cream parlor in Sicily — where pizza and gelato were first made and then exported to the rest of the world."
My brother, who worked for several years as an indie barista, told me that by opening a location in Milan, it "feels like Starbucks is taking a dump on the holy ground that is Italy."
Let's compare Starbucks to the average Italian company: Italy's economy, according to journalist Rachel Donadio, "is based on smaller businesses with more modest ambitions." More than 90 percent of Italian companies have fewer than 15 employees, and more than 85 percent of the country's businesses are family-owned and operated. The country has a decidedly more protectionist stance towards economic policy than we do in the U.S., which creates a swath of red tape for local businesses and hampers their ability to compete both at home and abroad. But that protectionism also points to the fact that Italians like to celebrate and protect certain aspects of their identity and culture — the small businesses which service their communities and the historic coffee culture they hold dear, for example.
America has always operated under a different paradigm. Ours is a country of industrialized businesses and gigantic franchises. We shop for groceries at Walmart and Target, stock our bathrooms with Johnson & Johnson products, fill our fridges with Purdue chicken, stay at Hilton hotels, text on iPhones, drive Ford cars, and buy our clothes from Old Navy (which is owned by Gap). We still have mom-and-pop stores, but we sold our souls and wallets to the god of cheapness long ago.
Our companies don't franchise for quality's sake: Every big brand product in America slowly turns to sawdust (literally, if you're talking about Kraft parmesan cheese). Our fast food companies and chain restaurants offer half-baked and mediocre copies of meals that are always better when offered at small, indie restaurants. Our hotel chains and department stores offer little color or personality. And many of these megalithic companies hide a multitude of sins under their blasé facades — from inhumane animal treatment at factory farms, to child labor in the production of textiles and technology overseas.
I'll admit, big brand names have an appeal that is hard to resist. Amazon makes every mom's life easier, with everything from diaper delivery subscriptions to Daniel Tiger on demand. I often have an inexplicable hankering for Chik-fil-a's spicy chicken sandwich, and can't quit Chip and Joanna Gaines' new Hearth & Hand line at Target.
But over the past several years, I have also realized that the American desire for cheap and easy goods has fostered a culture that disrespects humane, healthy, and wholesome systems of production — and our farmland, small towns, and citizens (not to mention the citizens of other countries) often suffer as a result.
Which means that the opening of Starbucks in Milan should cause Italians to be somewhat wary. The store's bells and whistles are great, but cannot and should not replace the vibrant local coffee culture that so many Italians hold dear. Some folks are saying this is a great opportunity for Italian cafes and restaurants "to learn from Starbucks how to create a global chain." But is global franchise the sole indicator of commercial success? Is there room in our economic paradigm to celebrate small, local, limited success?
There should be. American companies have proved that every time you expand without care for the limits of quality, you destroy a little bit of the life and beauty of your product. For all their faults and protectionism, Europeans have generally understood this to be true. But as fast food conquers the globe, and Starbucks moves into Italy, it seems increasingly likely that our world will eventually turn into a giant chain store: full of brand names that we all like, but none of us love.