Starbucks comes to Italy: An opera verismo in seven acts

MILAN – Present day, Starbucks is a well-known destination for community and coffee craft. But long ago, the vision for what would become 28,000 stores worldwide was first inspired by Italy. This week, that dream comes back to where it was born when the doors to the first Starbucks in Italy open on Friday morning – the Reserve Roastery in Milan.

This isn’t just any Starbucks store. It couldn’t be, not if it was going to truly pay homage to the Italian culture that inspired the brand. It had to be one of the grandest Starbucks ever.

The Milan Roastery is housed in a historic former post office in Palazzo delle Poste, a bustling city square along the stylish Piazza Cordusio. Outside its doors, some of Milan’s most postcard-inspiring spots are within a few blocks – the towering Duomo di Milano, the soaring light and glass of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and Teatro alla Scala, the most famous opera house in the world.

It’s the third Roastery in the world, after Seattle, which opened in 2014, and Shanghai, which opened in 2017. The Milan Roastery will offer locally roasted, small-lot Arabica coffee sourced from 30 countries, and freshly baked, artisanal food from local baker, Rocco Princi.

The opening also offers a full-circle moment for both Howard Schultz, chairman emeritus of Starbucks, and the newest partners alike – a crescendo steeped in sacrifice, tears, passion and the kind of lore rarely found outside Italian opera.

Presentando the Milan Roastery in seven acts, un’opera verisimo.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery MilanRoasters load green coffee beans into the complex system that moves coffee through the roasting process at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan, Italy. 

Act I: The aria

Howard Schultz has had a song playing in his head for the last 35 years.

Earlier this week, that song – “Nessun dorma,” an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot” – echoed through the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan.

As the orchestra in the recording swelled for tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Schultz turned slowly in place, his eyes moving over everything in the room – the vibrant green Scolari coffee roaster and the floor-to-ceiling, engraved brass wall depicting the company’s story. The Tuscan marble and the gleaming copper pipes. The handful of company leaders and partners watching respectfully from a distance. The past and the future.

Schultz’s first visit to Milan in 1983 had a profound impact on him. He was deeply impressed by the city’s art, fashion, music, culture and architecture, of course, but also Italy’s espresso culture, where family, friends and colleagues meet daily for espresso or cappuccino at welcoming, casual neighborhood bars. The then-fledgling coffee entrepreneur returned home to the four Starbucks stores in Seattle, which at the time only sold whole-bean coffee to brew at home, inspired and determined to build a company with the same nucleus of warmth, community and human connection. Now, humans connect at Starbucks in 78 countries around the world, and Schultz is standing in Italy’s first store, the completion a full circle 35 years in the making.

The new Roastery was designed by Liz Muller, Starbucks chief design officer, to be the physical embodiment of this journey – a tribute to the Italian coffee culture that helped shape Starbucks and a celebration of everything the company has learned over the years about the art and science of coffee.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery MilanLiz Muller, chief design officer, and Howard Schultz, chairman emeritus of Starbucks, are serenaded by partners in the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan, Italy. 

Inside, the space is a masterwork of light, color and uniquely Italian artistry and materials, from the hand-carved, Carrera marble siren in the portico to the hand-chiseled palladiana flooring. Outside, on its leafy, distinctly European terrace, customers can sit inside massive, bronze bird cages.

On his way out for the evening, Schultz – who stepped down from his role as company chairman in July – paused on the steps of the historic building and gazed back at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery signs hanging between its columns.

“What can I say?” he said quietly, smiling and shaking his head.

Act II: The grandmothers

For Italians, the topic of coffee will inevitably return to grandmothers.

Giampaolo Grossi, general manager of the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan, grew up in Florence. After his mother died of cancer when he was 6 years old, his grandmother helped raise him.

“Coffee means a sense of connection we love, which reminds me of my grandmother, who for me was like a mother,” Grossi said. “I remember my close friend came to my house and had lunch with father and grandmother. At end of lunch, she said, ‘Do you want a coffee?’ And she made it perfect, like in a restaurant or English bar at tea time, good coffee with saucers, spoons and sugar served in pot. I remember saying, ‘Hey, nana, please, I don’t want you to stress or have more jobs, this is my close friend.’
She clucked and shook her head. In this house, she told her grandson, we serve coffee right.

“That’s what we want to do at the Roastery – create a connection with every cup of coffee,” Grossi said. “Sometimes for people the good experience will be walking in quickly, and sometimes it will be to spend hours here and try something new. It is possible we’re going to make mistakes. We cannot mistake welcome. We cannot mistake being happy and having fun. I will not accept that,” he said. Behind him, the Roastery’s bright green clacker board, made by Italian display manufacturer Solari, flips through letters to share the names of the coffee varieties currently available.

“We may make the mistake of the wrong coffee, or the wrong food, but not the wrong attitude,” he continued. “It’s the sense of connection we love most.”

Up a sweeping staircase on the Roastery mezzanine is Arriviamo Bar, inspired by the Italian tradition of aperitivo – early evening social cocktails paired with small bites. Arriviamo Bar features classic Italian favorites such as the Aperol Spritz and Negroni, but also a full menu of craft cocktails, some of which feature cold-brew coffee.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery MilanStarbucks partner Carlo Marchelli at the Arriviamo Bar in the Roastery. 

Carlo Marchelli is standing behind the 30-foot marble bar, carved from a single block of Calacatta Macchia Vecchia, making one of the bar’s signature drinks. The spirit-free beverage includes a house-made lemon-orange cordial, tea, cold-brew coffee, Mediterranean tonic water and it is garnished with a flower and orange.

“It’s a very special drink, and it’s very interesting. It represents the Roastery well because it’s layered. You can drink it layer by layer from bottom to top, or you can stir it all up,” Marchelli said. “Here, you can have an espresso and go, or stay three hours and have gelato and a cold brew and an aperitivo and everything.”

Marchelli said his grandparents own a house in the Cottian Alps that run between Italy and France, and the best memories of his life are the summers he spent there when he was in school.

“Coffee is memories. In Italy, everyone always says to you when they smell coffee, ‘Oh, I remember my grandma’s house.’ Everyone. Because coffee in Italy is like a dish. There’s first plate, second plate, dessert and then coffee,” Marchelli said. “You have to have it. It’s mandatory.”

Marchelli’s grandmother made coffee for him, too -- in a stovetop Moka pot. Now, when Marchelli hosts friends, or even when he goes hiking in the Alps, he uses his own Moka pot to make coffee for people like his grandmother made for him. To show them he’s glad to be with them.

“A week before my very first day at the Roastery, I woke up, prepared my backpack for hiking, and with a group of friends I started walking. After three hours we reached a little alpine lake and, as we always do, we brewed coffee with a Moka pot and a portable stove,” Marchelli said. “There, surrounded by snow, sitting in the grass and holding our cups, we felt home.”

His training and preparation at the Milan Roastery has been similar to that hike, he said.

“During training, I brewed my very first coffee in a coffee press. My hands were shaking a little. I counted every second of every minute of infusion in my mind. I felt like I was on a hiking path, every second a step, every step someone to thank for sharing this adventure with me,” Marchelli said. “Then it was time to press. Maybe I was a little too emotional, but, I felt like it took an hour. I was living in slow motion, like in a movie.”

Act III: The epicenter

Before she became the first female coffee roaster in Europe for Starbucks, Michela Marinelli worked an office job in Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily.

“It was an insurance company. I always sat down for eight hours, always finished at six,” she said. Then, her marriage ended. “I said OK, maybe I need to change more. You know when you lose everything and you know you want to do something completely different in your life? It was the right time to do it.”

Marinelli, now 37, decided to learn English and move to London.

“I needed to find a job, and I went walking and saw Starbucks. I always saw it in the movies and then I got curious,” she said. She applied, and began as a barista. Five months later she became a supervisor. Then one day, her manager told her about an opportunity to work at the new Roastery in Milan.

She got the job and began traveling the world training to be a coffee roaster. At the Milan Roastery, she works in the epicenter of the new space near a vibrant green Scolari coffee roaster, manufactured just outside Milan.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery MilanCoffee roasters including Michela Marinelli, far left, are presented with their aprons during a ceremony. 

She pours green coffee beans out of burlap sacks to get them started on their journey through the roaster, cooling trays and the 6.5-meter (22 foot)-high bronze cask, which periodically opens like a blooming flower to give visitors a glimpse of the roasting process. After being roasted, the coffee beans travel through a maze of shiny, copper pipes overhead, making the tinkling sound of a rain storm, until they trickle into clear silos at the coffee bar. There, they are ground, brewed and served.

“I love working with this machine that makes everything happen and being able to roast a good coffee,” she said. “There’s not a lot of women coffee roasters. Maybe now other women can see me and find a new job. I didn’t ever think I’d be a roaster but it’s really, really, really cool to do.”

Act IV: The tears

Three years ago, Junior Mouhamadou Issa was running for his life from his home country of Benin in Western Africa with only 20 Euros in his pocket and the clothes on his back after a dispute in his village left his father dead.

The 20-year-old now works at the main bar in the new Milan Roastery, a 360-degree coffee theater in the round. A marble countertop runs all the way around, and customers can walk up and order any number of coffee beverages created from the Roastery’s freshly prepared beans – Italian staples like espresso and cappuccino, yes, but also from a variety of coffee-making methods such as Pour Over, Chemex, Siphon and Cold Brew.

Issa’s favorite part of the main bar is on the far end, the company’s first-ever affogato station, where he crafts made-to-order ice cream using liquid nitrogen. That’s where he was standing when Starbucks ceo Kevin Johnson and other company leaders sat down in front of him earlier this week.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery MilanStarbucks partner Junior Mouhamadou Issa, right, presents his craft to Kevin Johnson, Starbucks ceo and other Starbucks leaders. 

Issa greeted them warmly and started making a batch of affogato, explaining each step of the process. As the mixer on the shiny silver machine churned the cream, he pulled a lever on the side to inject the liquid nitrogen, freezing the cream and releasing a dramatic cloud of vapor that spilled over the mixing bowl and inspired  “oohs” and “ahhs” from onlookers.

Here, Issa went quiet for a moment as he looked from the faces of Starbucks leaders in front of him to the nearly finished batch of ice cream and the shots of espresso waiting to pour over it. That’s when he started to cry.

He excused himself to the other side of the bar, and immediately found himself at the center of a large group hug from his fellow partners. Martin Brok, president of Starbucks Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), was close behind Issa to check on him, and Johnson went to comfort him as well.

Issa later explained that his proud moment making ice cream for Starbucks leaders triggered a flashback of his epic journey. At the time of his father’s murder at the hands of political opponents three years ago, Issa was away at school studying finance. Fearing the dispute would extend to Issa and leave the young student in danger, his teacher gave him a little money and put him in a car to the neighboring country of Niger. There, Issa took refuge at a mosque and joined a group of men headed to Libya to work construction. After a client refused to pay the group for several months of work, Issa was put on a boat to Italy. There, he learned his mother and his little brother had fled Benin as well, and he was eventually able to reach her by phone.

“She said ‘Ah, they told me that you died!’” he said. “She was so happy. She was crying.”

In Italy, he was safe, but felt more lost than ever. Then his luck started to change. A family from Milan heard about Issa’s story and invited him to move in with them. They helped him get back in school to once again study finance, helped him prepare a CV and drove him to an interview for a job at the first Starbucks in Italy. In February, he was hired to work at the Milan Roastery.

“Talking with people, giving them the coffee, talking about the ice cream, giving them things they’ve never tasted before and in a place like they will never see again – it’s the most happiness that I get,” Issa said. “I was telling myself in that moment that because of those people in front of me, my life is changing. I don’t know how to thank them. That is why I cry.”

Act V: The sacrifice

When he moved to Milan five years ago, Sithum Dissanayake didn’t speak much Italian. In Sri Lanka, he was a marketing and sales executive, but because of the language barrier, he had to start over in Milan. He got a job working as a cleaner at a Princi bakery.

“When I was cleaning, I always finished my job quickly and helped the chef. I was working extra hours, but I wanted to learn something,” Dissanayake said. “One day, there was an opening in the kitchen, and Mr. Rocco asked for me to help him.”

Dissanayake became a waiter, then an assistant chef and he’s now a baker for the Princi inside the Milan Roastery.

Wood-fired oven at Milan Roastery

The wood-fired oven in the Princi bakery is prepped for bread. 

In 2016, Starbucks announced a strategic partnership with Italian baker Rocco Princi, bringing his artisanal, freshly baked food to the company’s premium Reserve brand. The Milan Roastery Princi Bakery features a wood-fired oven that was built onsite, brick by brick, by a crew of masons and artisans.

Dissanayake said he originally didn’t know whether he, his wife and their two kids would stay in Italy, but they’ve had second thoughts. They’ve bought a house in Milan and settled in.

“Yeah, I handled more responsibility in Sri Lanka, but I’m not living there, I’m in Italy. You have to be flexible in your life and sacrifice to get extra. Otherwise I would have been a cleaner still,” he said.

Act VI: The Melody

Melody Marino’s first job was at Starbucks, but nearly 20 years ago. The Milan native, now 44, moved to London in 1999 for an adventure and was working in a small, family restaurant and learning English from mafia movies when she walked by a Starbucks one day and decided to have a coffee.

As a nearly lifelong resident of Italy, home of great espresso, Marino was skeptical about what she’d find inside. Little did she know it would be coffee as well as a job and colleagues who would become friends for life.

“I started talking to the guys there and the manager hired me then and there,” Marino said. “I just fell in love. I remember hearing the phrase ‘Treat each other with respect and dignity’ in training. The company was just a little bit different.”

Marino eventually moved on from the company. When her mother became ill last year, Marino returned to Milan to care for her. A friend from her first stint at Starbucks in London told her since she was home, she should apply to the new Milan Roastery.

“For me, it was truly like coming back home. It was a circle, let’s say,” she said. “I’m proud to be back here in my city and to have this amazing thing happening here.”

She said she wrote Schultz a letter a long time ago thanking him for changing her life. He dreamed a dream big enough to include so many, she said.

“Italian people know about coffee. But what this will do is show people that there is more than great espresso,” she said. “I was once skeptical too, but he brings innovation. He brings the future. He’s saying to us look, there is more.”

Wednesday, she got to be in a group photograph with Schultz before he spoke to her and the other new Italian partners.

“To make a long story short, you are standing in the most extraordinary expression of history and heritage and love and passion for what we do at Starbucks,” Schultz said. “Everything we have done has led to this moment. My dream of bringing Starbucks to Italy is being fulfilled, and I know in my heart it will be successful. I know we are leaving the company in extraordinary hands.”

Act VII:  The Poste Italiane

Like the people inside, and the company that now inhabits it, the Palazzo delle Post has a life of its own.

The crescent shaped-building that now houses the Milan Roastery was once a stock exchange, and then became the city’s main post office. On Wednesday evening at a special preview party for neighbors, Enrico Menegazzo sat with a table of fellow postal workers sipping drinks in the very space where they used to report for work each day.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery MilanPeople that used to work in Milan’s Palazzo delle Post gather as the formerly shuttered space is unveiled as the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery. 

“We are very emotional, because for many years this place was work, but like home as well,” Menegazzo said. “This is a piece of history in the city of Milan. There are a lot of memories here, and I’m very happy that this historic building has been brought back to life.”

The building, and the square outside its front doors, has changed from a finance and business district to a bustling center of culture and tourism over the years, but Menegazzo is pleased with how things have turned out. The place has the same energy as before, he said – people used to queue at the post office and share stories while they waited, and now neighbors, locals and tourists can all meet up at the Roastery and do the same, just “while tasting a wonderful coffee.”

If the life of the Palazzo delle Post were an opera, it would just be getting good, he said. “For me, we’re in the middle. Because we take the heritage of the past, the post office, and it’s a transformation of the old. The end of the first act,” he said. “Now we have a big, bright future to see how this will end.”

Teresa Spaventa contributed to this report.

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