Back in 2005, after a long flight to Milan and a late train to our hotel from Malpensa, all we could do after check-in (it was around 11pm) was to try to get some shut-eye. Try, as you can imagine, because our biological clocks were off-kilter.
The next morning, we headed out for breakfast. The night before, we walked past a bakery/café with a beautiful display of baked items. It was only a few doors away from our hotel on Via Speronari, so it was a logical choice to have our very first meal in Italy, breakfast at Princi. Rather than something sweet, we ordered savory focaccias that were cut up into little rectangles, and our beverages (espresso, cappuccino). Like the Italian customers, we had our breakfast standing up at the counter. Little did we know that many years later this café, now one of five in Milan and one in London, would capture the imagination of Howard Schultz, enough for Starbucks to enter into a business partnership with Rocco Princi to provide in-house food service at Starbucks Roastery stores and Reserve coffee shops, so reported the Seattle Times.
Rocco, I love your stuff.
Ever think of expanding the business outside of Milan? You know, go world-wide? Kinda like my vast empire.
No offense, Howard, but my business model is different. We make things from scratch, use organic ingredients, control the entire operation from beginning to end. We strive for top quality, whatever it takes. Our operation isn’t scalable like yours.
Rocco, you gotta be kiddin’ me. Think big. Maybe cut a few corners here and there. If the pizzas get a little burnt, bitter maybe, no one’s gonna care. Give it a catchy name like full città arrosto.
Not gonna happen, Howard.
Rocco, Rocco. People respect your name, and they’ll pay.
It’s a matter of principle.
Did I mention that Starbucks would provide you with the space and equipment? You’ll make a mint.
How much are we talking about?
This dialog didn’t ACTUALLY take place. It’s more an alternative conversation. So, what’s really happening here? Starbucks gets exclusive rights to open Princi outlets all over the world, both in its high-end stores and as standalone entities. Since its inception in 1986, Princi has opened six stores (including one in London), clearly in keeping with a strategy of careful growth. Starbucks has over 20,000 stores. Its customers will recall that, in response to criticisms of inferior pastries (my daughter being one of them), Starbucks in 2012 bought La Boulange of San Francisco, which had quite a Bay Area following. While their pastries will continue to be sold at Starbucks, all 23 brick-and-mortar La Boulange stores were unceremoniously shuttered in 2015. They “weren’t sustainable for the company’s long-term growth.” A cautionary tale for Rocco Princi is in there somewhere.
To be clear, food service is going to be provided only at Starbucks’ special stores. Exactly what will be served is up in the air now, though pizza and focaccia are surely slated. The first to get a Princi will be Seattle’s own Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, perhaps in the summer.
Current tenant Serious Pie, operated by local superstar restauranteur Tom Douglas, will be replaced by Princi, an agreement reached amicably.
I’ll be one of the first to find out how Princi handles the transition, but the feeling of café intimacy I got in Milan surely will not be part of the experience.