Star[bucks] Italy: What it means to you

Starbucks is opening in Italy! What is Howard Shultz thinking? Bringing the café concept to the Italians? Italy invented the café! In 1639!

Well Shultz knows this. In fact, it was on a trip to Milan when Shultz worked for the fledgling five-store Seattle coffee roaster Starbucks, that he recognized European coffee drinking is a social experience. He talks about this in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. He understood it's not just great coffee that the Italians embrace, but the sociability of the café. 

Starbucks today is what Shultz calls a third place. It's not home, and it's not your job, it's a third place to socialize, relax, and, yes, get work done. What Shultz brought back from that trip to Milan was an understanding of customer experience. Then he built an American café experience in the States.

The Rail is located in a small coastal town just north of Boston. And even here, we have four dedicated coffee spots: two independent coffee houses (Atomic Café and Java Sun), a Dunkin' Donuts, and a Starbucks. While their coffee offerings are different, it's their customer experience that has a more dynamic range than what's in the cup. Dunkin' Donuts customers don't often hang out in Starbucks. Rarely do you see the same crowd at our retro Atomic Café that you see in our brightly yellow-painted Java Sun.

I was fortunate to live in Paris for several years where the coffee and café culture is legendary. But you know what? The quality of coffee varies in Parisian cafés as much as it does between our own Dunkin' Donuts and Atomic Cafe.

Why do we choose one café over the other?

Well, perhaps the café's location is known for great people-watching, or music, or friendly waiters and bar staff. Maybe it's a clean, well-lighted place, or a grungy café/bar where artist, writers or musicians hangout. Maybe it's a big tourist trap and you just want to hear a lot of spoken English. But what it all gets down to is the experience.

The restaurant and hospitality world is one of experiences. Sure, we provide food, drink, and a roof, but it's not utilitarian food, drinks, and roofs. We serve up a big portion of experience, too. 

The customer experience encompasses everything from how a customer is greeted at the door to the cleanliness of your parking lot. It's the music you play, the attitude of your staff, and your kitchen's plate presentation. 

The customer experience is everything you want it to be. You define it, you build it, and you nurture it. Take a moment and walk into your place, through the front door, and try to experience it as a customer. What's the experience? 

So just how is Starbucks going to compete with awesome coffee and hundreds of years of the traditional Italian café? They're not. They're going to, as General George Patton famously put it, "Hit 'em where they ain't." 

Starbucks will give the Italians an American café experience. 

What kind of experience do you give your customers?

Espresso machine image by Luigi Andreola
Starbucks sign image by Marco Paköeningrat
Inside cafe image by Massimo Camussi