The arrival of Starbucks in Italy proved controversial, given that the country is known for its independent and often family-run cafes, and it’s found another way to make news. The chain has announced a new Oleato range in its Italian stores – a range of coffees laced with olive oil, a deliberate decision to put the coffee in conversation with Italian and Mediterranean culture. Despite Starbucks’ origin actually being connected with Italy and a visit by a senior executive in 1983, the relationship has not been the closest – but will this new drink make a difference, or is it simply a fad?
Starbucks attracted negative reactions and even a boycott when it first opened in Italy in 2018, and some protestors set fire to palm trees planted by the coffee chain in Milan. It’s not the first time that foreign chains claiming to specialise in homegrown products have fallen flat – last year, Domino’s was forced to pull out of the country, a combination of sales at a lower level than desired and the pandemic forcing traditional pizzerias to deliver. But unlike the pizza company, the coffee chain has established a degree of success in Italy with 20 stores, and now it hopes that the new drink will put it in touch with the Italian consciousness.
Starbucks attracted negative reactions and even a boycott when it first opened in Italy
According to chief executive Howard Schultz, the idea for the drink came after he adopted an Italian custom of taking a daily spoonful of olive oil while travelling in Sicily last year. He tried adding it to his coffee, and said that it produced an “unexpected, velvety, buttery flavour that enhanced the coffee and lingers beautifully on the palate”. As a result, Starbucks beverage designer Amy Dilger came to Italy to learn more about olives, and their connection to Italian culture, and see how they could be used in a new coffee.
That’s the origin of the Oleato range, which includes both a latte cold brew and the ‘Oleato deconstructed’ – a drink which pairs espresso with olive oil “infused with a luxurious passionfruit cold foam”. Mr Schultz said: “Now, there’s going to be people who say ‘Olive oil in coffee?’ But the proof is in the cup. In over 40 years, I can’t remember a moment in time where I’ve been more excited, more enthused that demonstrates the pride, the quality, the passion, the heritage and the craft of what Starbucks can do.”
The reaction to the drink has been mixed. One customer described the Oleato latte as having a “sweeter taste” that “went down smoother”, while another said that “the taste of coffee dominates the oil”. Dennis D’Anna, a bar worker from Catania said that, although he prefers normal coffee, “novelties are not necessarily to be rejected”. Others were not willing to try it – Maria Franceschi, who works for the municipality of Milan, said that “oil and coffee are different tastes” that could not possibly be paired together, while bar owner Marcello Mannile said that he would not be adding olive oil to his coffee due to “a cultural factor”.
The reaction to the drink has been mixed… the taste of coffee dominates the oil
Although the drink is initially intended for Italy, it will receive a wider rollout later this year. It will be available in Southern California in the spring, and there are plans to bring it to the UK, Japan and the Middle East towards the end of 2023. Apparently, there may be regional variations of Oleato coming too (both in Italy and these new markets), with more information about these to follow. Ultimately, as Mr Schultz suggests, the real test facing Oleato is whether customers will actually drink it, or whether it’ll be a novelty that fails to really catch the eye and excite the tastebuds of its coffee drinkers.