When Starbucks first opened its doors to unsuspecting Americans way back in 1971, it didn’t take long for its frothy brand of cappuccinos and sickly sweet lattes to take hold. Of course, “coffee” in the US had long been known as a mysterious black murky brew served in polystyrene cups, sweetened with a strange powdery substance called “creamer” and stirred with scoopless spoons. Here was a culture desperately begging for evolution.
But some countries weren’t so receptive to the conglomerate’s Big Gulp approach to the espresso bar.
After opening its first store in Australia in 2000, the coffee-loving mermaid embarked on an aggressive expansion, quickly growing to 84 stores across the country. But Australia isn’t like the US. Sydney and especially Melbourne have enjoyed a rich espresso-loving culture since the arrival of Italian immigrants during the Second World War. Eight years and $143m in losses later, Starbucks popped the lid on 60 of its stores.
If the coffee-obsessed souls of Melbourne had no time for the soulless, dusty contents of chain-made flat whites, imagine how the Italian city of Naples might respond when the unfamiliar concept of American fried chicken storms its doorstep. After initially failing to penetrate the city back in the 1970s, KFC began taking baby steps back into one of Europe’s cultural epicentres in 2014. The Colonel now has two outlets: one in Rome and another in Turin.
And there are now plans to tackle the birthplace of pizza once again. But can Neapolitans really be seduced by the very American flavour of the colonel’s secret herbs and spices?
The richness of Italy’s culinary history needs no illustration. The buffalo that produce the original style of mozzarella are bred in just one location - Casserta, just outside Naples. The modern version of pizza was invented in Naples in the 18th century. And for many Napoli locals, it’s still a dominant staple. Its pleasures are simple and it weaves nicely into the area’s fond fabric of tradition and heritage.
If KFC has its greasy grip on revolutionising Italy’s approach to fast-food dining, it could be following the same path forged by Starbucks in Australia. Naples isn’t Los Angeles - Italians don’t choose one rosticceria over another simply because it’s more convenient and features a drive-thru.
When big brands try to inflict themselves on cultures they don’t fully understand, struggle is inevitable. Perhaps KFC can find a way to respect and co-exist alongside Italy’s sacred relationship with food. But for now at least, it would seem the American invention of chicken with pasta is unlikely to catch-on as the next finger-licking good cuisine across Italian dinner tables.
Ben Rylan is Monocle 24’s associate producer.