Starbucks Set to Rock Italy's Cafe Culture

It's L.A. Story meets Europe — a scene reminiscent of Steve Martin's musings on excessive, ridiculous coffee preferences from his satirical 1991 film.

Imagine the French, for example, consuming triple-shot soy milk lattes, the Italians downing almond mocha espressos, or perhaps the Swiss insisting upon half-caf skimmed macciattos?

It seems unlikely to some, but it may become a real possibility. That's because European nations — including Italy, which introduced the coffeehouse to the world more than 400 years ago — now face an American challenge to this treasured, and once unique, institution.

Going Softly, Softly into Europe

The Seattle-based coffee powerhouse, Starbucks, has announced plans to expand its 4,000-strong empire with some 650 branches planned for continental Europe.

Starbucks is currently opening new branches worldwide at a rate of three per day. "We're taking a softly, softly approach when it comes to Europe," explained a spokeswoman for Starbucks Europe. "We expect to open shops in the big four countries — Italy, Germany, France and Spain — in the next 24 to 36 months."

The company has had branches for some time outside of the United States, in places as far and wide as Thailand, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia. In many of these countries, Starbucks coffee struck its customers as exotic, enticing, and addictive. The Japanese are particularly addicted to the American import, with over 200 outlets serving customers throughout the country.

But now, Starbucks is attempting to encroach upon what Europe considers its own pride and joy, not to be challenged by outside imitators.

Italians Protect Coffee Culture

In Italy — where one city has already formed an association to protect historic cafés — a battle lies ahead.

For Italians, drinking their coffee is as routine as breathing — a recent survey found that 70 million cups of espresso are drunk in Italy each year. That's 600 shots per person, consumed in any of Italy's 110,000 coffee bars. Milan, nexus of the fashion world, has some 600 cafés alone.

And Italians' cafés are a source of pride and joy. In this country where sidewalk cafés are firmly entrenched in the national psyche, Starbucks' announcement has caused an uproar.

"The Italian café is a culture that the Americans have repackaged," said a spokesman for one of Starbucks' European competitors. "They concentrate more on their image than the coffee."

Italy's La Stampa newspaper chided: "We thought we had everything in Italy, but it turns out we lacked one thing: American coffee,"

Swiss as Taste Testers

It's not Starbucks' first foray into the European market. Just three years ago, the first Starbucks was opened at Britain's Manchester Airport. There are now 200 stores in this country alone, with plans for an additional 140 outlets to open in the next two years.

But on the Continent, Starbucks may have a formidable challenge. Europeans like their coffee plain and simple — the Starbucks tradition of customized, high-maintenance coffees just may not fly. Though Europeans may choose espressos instead of cappuccinos, having a coffee is a treasured break, or perhaps a leisurely start, for one's day.

La dolce vita may not be the same if it is taken to go. One Swiss newspaper writer dismissed Starbucks as "coffee culture in a cardboard cup."

Yet Starbucks has already ventured into Switzerland, where its three-storied Zurich shop attracts customers in one of 50 outlets planned for the alpine country.

In fact, the firm views Switzerland, traditionally a melting pot with its three national languages, as a great testing-ground that would allow many nationalities and ethnicities to sample its product. "The Swiss shop is our toe-in-the-water test for continental Europe because of the multi-cultural nature of the city," said the Starbucks Europe spokeswoman.

Pushing an International Brand

American coffee, à la Starbucks and other imitators, has been criticized for being weak and commercialized. But the company insists it has been welcomed with open arms on the Continent. And surprisingly, some European competitors grudgingly credit Starbucks with opening the doors to Europe's espresso bar market.

"The Europeans, in particular, are quite pleasantly surprised when they taste Starbucks for the first time," Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz told the press recently, "because American coffee has had a bad reputation for so long."

The company maintains that it is taking into account the local influences of the new Starbucks countries. Though the company owns almost all of its stores in the States, Starbucks finds local business partners in most foreign markets. And while it doesn't change its coffee offerings, the food choices are adapted to local cultures.

"We don't believe we are an American company, but an international brand," Howard Behar, president of Starbucks Coffee International recent told the BBC. In Britain, Starbucks hopes to draw from the national pub culture to make Starbucks yet another meeting place, he added.

But Starbucks' challenge will not only be its ability to open and maintain branches world-wide, but to overturn decades, if not centuries, of tradition.

Coffee is already currently the second largest traded commodity in the world, just after oil. With Starbucks pushing into newer territories faster than it can come up with new coffee variations, this trend looks set to continue.

Contributing to this report was ABCNEWS' Tony Eufinger in London.