Schultz, Starbucks CEO: Italian baristas are very good, Italian coffee is awful

Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, was in Italy with a group of partners to study the coffee market in the country. In the last months he has been working on the repositioning of Starbucks, trying to face the threats coming from aggressive competitors as McDonald’s. Coffee Taster republishes the letter from Howard Schultz.

* * * *

Dear Partners,

As I write you this note, I’m flying back to Seattle with a small group of Starbucks partners after spending a few days in Italy. No, we were not there to open our first store in Rome, although I’m quite certain that day will surely come. We were there to conduct a market visit to take in “all things coffee,” and to have strategic discussions with leading food and beverage companies.

We tasted and consumed coffee in every coffee bar we encountered. We saw elegant designs, experienced the artistry of baristas, ate fantastic food, and were introduced to new and interesting product ideas for the future. It was exciting for me to, once again, return to where it all began. The Italian people are wonderful. Their passion for life, their love of food and wine, and their coffee, is contagious.

During our visit, I made the following observations:

The Barista — The Barista is highly trained and very skilled. He presents each cup of espresso with great care and pride after intently watching the pour of the shot. He steams the milk as an artisan to produce a velvety foam, and from time to time, truly elevates his work to “art.”

The Coffee — This will probably surprise you (and hopefully you will not view my assessment as arrogant, but rather as honest), but the coffee was not that good. It turns out that most Italian coffee roasters blend their coffee with robusta beans. This is most likely because of a need for increased profit, but as a result of this decision, much is lost in the cup. The coffee leaves you with a strong, acidic, somewhat sour taste on the side of your tongue. This taste was unpleasant and disagreeable, but prominent in almost all the coffee we tasted.

Despite the change in the taste of the coffee, the experience we had was overwhelmingly positive on both a personal and professional level. We all felt a strong sense of pride in our company and in all of you. For many years now, we have been a respectful inheritor of the Italian coffee culture. We have built our business honoring the very things we saw and experienced. And, in some cases, I am humbled to say, we have improved it.

All of you deliver a world class experience to our customers — one that I believe Italians would praise. We have challenges and opportunities ahead of us, but as long as we embrace our heritage and tradition, have faith in our coffee, our values, and our core purpose, we will continue to win the hearts and minds of our customers. As for the coffee, we never have and never will blend our coffee with robusta beans. We will leave that for others. It is important to note that today; we ethically source higher quality arabica coffee than in any other time in our history. And, in my view, we roast it at a quality level that is better than in the past because of new technology.

So, this trip brought me back to where it all began, but at the same time reinforced how good we are and how far we have come. We learned a lot. And, we will utilize much of this learning to keep pushing for innovation, while at the same time embracing our core, our people, and our coffee. All of which I am proud to say would stand tall even in the greatest coffee theatre of them all.

Thank you for all that you do.



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22 Responses to “Schultz, Starbucks CEO: Italian baristas are very good, Italian coffee is awful”

  1. Wally Says:

    He has got to be joking…..Starbucks think their coffee is better that any Italian coffee…..

    I guess his statement was enough to make the Starbucks president resign.

  2. Steve Says:

    Wally, He never said Starbucks was better. He just said the coffee was not that good. And, believe it or not, his opinion is not any different then a lot of other people who were surprised at how poor the coffee was compared to the best micro roasters here in the states.

  3. Albert Says:

    Is this the resign letter of Howard Schultz?

  4. Greg Says:

    Steve, he might not have stated it directly, but it’s certainly implied. Obviously, American tastes vary greatly to those of Italians. Just look at how we ‘mericans drown pasta in sauce, or bury pizza under mountains of toppings. Great things can be done with a carefully selected blend that includes robustas, as well as employing changes to roasting techniques. But with the stigma here in the US towards any robusta (& the preference towards very dark roasts), I doubt that we’ll see Italian-style espresso roasts for quite a while. Except, of course, from Italy….

  5. Jack Denver Says:

    People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    I recently tried Starbucks just to see how they are doing on coffee prep (otherwise I never go). The answer is awful. My “cappuccino” was topped with stiff dry foam like cardboard. You would never get such a miserable drink in Italy.

    A small amount of robusta is traditional in Italian espresso. There are also 100% Arabica blends available.

  6. Coffee Lover Says:

    Howard has focused on the single thing Starbucks does better than the Italians, which is select higher quality beans. He has overlooked the terrible, terrible things they do to them once they reach Starbucks’ hands and emerge as a hot milk shake.

  7. RoqueJa Says:

    I seem to recall that Starbucks did open a coffee house in Rome several (many?) years ago. In Piazza Navona, no less. Actually, what I remember is an article I read in the New Yorker where one of the two (can’t remember which) Piazza Navona destination caffes was quoted after being asked about the prospects of competing with Starbucks: “They’re not selling coffee. They’re selling milk.” And sugar, he might have added.

    So, maybe the Starbucks Roma never did happen. Or maybe there just wasn’t enough market for sweet, coffee-flavored milk in Roma and it’s long gone. Anyone know?

  8. Loyde Yates Says:

    Without trying to second guess the ‘undisputed leader,’ if Mr. Schultz’s goal was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Italians, I doubt if leaking a memo criticizing their coffee will do the trick. If he really wants to “stand tall,” instead of tearing down others, why not just develp a better tasting coffee? That might help convince both the Italians and his partners.

    Besides, if we tend to describe others the way we see ourselves, saying, “The coffee leaves …a sour taste on the side of your tongue,” doesn’t help his case much!

  9. Ryan Ji(Korea KMI) Says:

    I think, just only defferant local taste.

    I like illy & Starbucks coffee.


  10. Natalino Says:

    My opinion is that of a recently graduated Certified Italian Espresso specialist and could not accept Mr. Shultz’s generalization. Certainly, some esspresso bars in South Italy use a percentage of Robusta beans to increase the crema volume and add some bitterness because down there they love to pile sugar into their espresso. However, a Certified Italian Espresso served in the areas such as Florence at many famous coffe bars such as Bar Pucci use a 100% Arabica blend of coffee beans roasted by the Jolly Caffe Company resulting in the best Certified Italian Espresso one has probably ever tasted!
    This is a true representation of the optimum Espresso expected and enjoyed by passionate Italian Espresso drinkers!

    Natalino Barbon
    Canadian Graduate of the Instituto Internazionale Assagiatori Caffe
    Brescia, Italy

  11. Johnny Says:

    As Natalino points out there are some great coffee bars in Italy. Maybe Mr. Schultz & company just didn’t plan their stops very well? There are crappy cafe’s all over the world… Italy included.

  12. Ahmed Says:

    I visited Italy 4 times, and drunk few espressos each day I stay there. I visited many very samll cafes to classy ones. I found out that the worst cafe in Italy brews espresso better than starbucks.

    I should admit that Starbucks has good beverages with high volume of steamed milk and flavorings syrups and sauces, in addition to the whipped cream. When you put all these stuff, then you can use even the worst coffee. That is what Starbucks does.

  13. Ahmed Says:

    Bad Robusta can be found in Nestle.

    He states things about coffee blend for espresso. This statement means that he doesn’t know any thing about espresso. Good quality robusta is very important for the traditional Italian espresso, because there are some characterstics can be found only in Robusta, and you need them in small quantity like 10-30%.

    It seems that he doesn’t know about good Robusta. He said “most Italian coffee roasters blend their coffee with robusta beans. This is most likely because of a need for increased profit, but as a result of this decision, much is lost in the cup. The coffee leaves you with a strong, acidic, somewhat sour taste on the side of your tongue”. If any Italian read this statement, he will laugh on it.

  14. Steve Says:

    I am Italian and I must say I agree with Mr Schltz: coffee in bars is usually godawful. At least where I live (northern Italy)

  15. Franco Says:

    Steve… believe me… no single espresso outside italy is to comparise to the worst espresso in italy, even in italian restaurants… the boss of starbucks is maybe simple liyng to make profit… as they lie in their site when once they told that caffelatte was invented by starbucks, infact no bar in italy sell caffèlatte… many americans think so…
    my dear, i simple drunk espresso everywhere in europe, starting from starbucks self… just curious to test if they are really better than in italy… i have to admit that the espresso of starbucks is long the worst i drunk ever! Totally burnt, without taste, without fragrance, even strong, acid, letting a terrible taste in the mouth that u cannot imagine. When u drink espresso outside italy, then u come back and the worst italian coffee will taste more than wonderful even without sugar! And this howard schultz says it’s the opposite… ilarious… good Mr. Schultz, come here in Italy then, open a starbucks here and we will see ur great coffee… maybe we italians will definitivly learn, by americans, the correct italian way to make and taste coffe (what espresso is..)? Not like those italians who understand nothing about italian coffee? 😉

  16. Matt Says:

    I am an American who has being living in the Milano area for 2 years. I have never drank coffee before my time here and I must say I now have 2 or 3 espressos (cafe normale) a day. I have returned to America and have tasted our coffee and I think it tastes like dirty water. I do however think a Starbucks in Roma or Milano would do awesome because it is not the Italians that have the money to pay the Starbucks prices, but the huge quantity of forgieners there. And after living here I know that during the summer it’s not Italians who are in the cities, because they are at the beaches, it’s Americans.

  17. alkinea Says:

    There has been a strong interest in good coffee in the US, starting in 1990. There are not that many countries where you can easily buy green beans, roast your own coffee and make your own espresso. Why? Interesting question.
    On my side: I am making my own espresso because after visiting many Starbucks, I couldn’t drink their espressos: sorry, I can’t drink a cup of coal.
    I guess many people in the US are doing the same as me: avoiding Starbucks.
    “So, this trip brought me back to where it all began, but at the same time reinforced how good we are” ??? Come on, please.

  18. tanya Says:

    so easy to hate on the big evil corporation. that email was released internally, not meant to ‘increase profit’ (i don’t even understand that comment!) or hurt any feelings. it was also HIS opinion. which he is entitled to. he was writting to his baristas on a personal level because he was proud of his company. if you dont like starbucks, thats fine – you are entitled to YOUR opinion as well. isnt that what coffee enjoyment is all about, your opinion? you drink what you like from where you like it… and individual tastes and experiences will affect what you like and don’t like – which to me, is the most interesting part. instead of mocking his opinion, why not take it as an opportunity to have a real conversation about coffees around the world and their flavour profiles. it’s easy to call starbucks espresso “coal” but is that really all you taste? perhaps you should train your palette… even if you don’t enjoy the drink, you should try to find a real reason why.

  19. Aubrey Says:

    It seems like most of you guys are confusing Schultz’s criticism of Italian coffee with his praise of Italian espresso. He did say they had bad coffee, but he also said they had great espresso and it was similar to art making over there! Did most of you even read what he wrote? He seems to LOVE thieir espresso!
    I would have to agree: although I have never been to Italy, every ethnic Italian I have ever stayed with will brew typical/bad coffee, but their espresso is a completely different story, as I love it, and they were the ones who (i believe) invented it. As for starbucks….I have never been a fan: it is too strong for me, but it was definitely better than all the other crap…it set standards for coffee sellers everywhere. What I would like to know, and am trying to find out is if Starbucks does, in fact, use mostly Arabica beans (this could include a small bit of Robusta, but majority Arabica beans)? “Seattle’s Best” coffee is now owned by Starbucks, and I am trying to figure out if “Seattle’s best” also uses mainly arabica beans? Why don’t they have this information on their bags/website if their coffee is so “high quality”? Are they trying to hide something?

  20. Michael Harvey Says:

    Back in the very very early days, Schultz first got his inspiration to extend Starbucks just from being a roaster to having its own cafes from his own experiences in Italy. In fact, his first approach to a cafe environment was opera music, baristas wearing tuxedo affairs and an intense approach to espresso.

    Of course, shareholders have changed all that. He’s a corporate businessman now, not a man looking to champion the best espresso regardless of cost.

    But his learning of espresso was in Italy and I doubt he intended to deride Italian coffee. Robusta has plenty of contention behind it simply because it’s flavour profile is of burnt rubber (when cupped out). The issue is whether it evolves during the espresso process.

    I do wonder whether robusta is used simply because the Italian government sets the basic price of espresso. Does this not limit the quality available to the finest roasters in Italy?

  21. Ericka Says:

    Hi Aubrey!
    I’m a supervisor at a SBC cafe… We have always used only Arabica beans in all of our coffees.

    I’m not 100% sure why it’s nowhere on the actual bag, but I can guarantee that we only use Arabica beans & have been roasting “uncommonly smooth”, rich coffees for 40 years!

    If you have any other questions, I’d be happy to answer them!

    Have a great day!

  22. Ana Pintão Says:

    There are also very good quality and interesting flavor Robustas. In Portugal, we apreciate a good body, enriched with a lot of natural cream and a strong aroma and long lasting taste, that`s why we mix the two in different percentages in order to have nice balances for different kind of people demands.

    “We believe mixing is beautiful”

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