You might’ve heard that millennials don’t like corporate food much: they tend to be drawn toward unique meals and locally-owned restaurants that offer seasonal, interesting ingredients . While restaurants like Applebee’s and The Olive Garden are oft-derided in the media, Starbucks seems nearly immune to such criticisms. Aren’t they as corporate as anyone, gaining revenue and expanding internationally at such rates as to push local coffee shops out of business? Maybe. But whether it’s their coffee or their brand, Starbucks is still beloved — especially by folks under 40. And that’s probably because, unlike so many other food brands, they just get it. They understand what it is their potential customers might be after: something real, something fresh, something… authentic (while somehow still leaving space for weird-ass stunt foods).
The former quest — the hunt for the authentic — is why Rocco Princi, famed Italian baker, agreed to partner with the mega-brand (also, probably $$$). Together, they’ve created something that feels truly exceptional in the world of dying Ruby Tuesdays and increasingly tiresome Insta-food trends: a brand new Princi cafe in Seattle, built right into the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, which opened officially on November 7th. Last week, I took an early tour of the concept, and I’m here to tell you: Shit is working.
I’d never been to Seattle before, much less Starbucks elite Reserve Roastery, so I felt overwhelmed at merely the prospect of being there: it was more like a brewery than a fancy coffee shop. Outside, the rain and wind welcomed me to the Emerald City (I had expected nothing less), so I was anxious to warm up with some coffee and bread. I thought we would just be touring the cafe and maybe tasting a few things, but in actuality, they had a multi-course meal planned for us. As I was escorted to the cafe (inside the Roastery, hidden from public view with a temporary wall) with a few other journalists, the smell of freshly-baked bread intermingled with the sharp scent of roasting coffee beans. It was the perfect antidote for Seattle’s famously dreary weather. They can keep their legal weed; I just wanna get high on bread and coffee.
The first thing I noticed was how open everything was. There was no “behind-the-scenes” action here: the kitchen, the ovens, the workers were all out in the open. All of this was by design, and reflective of Rocco Princi’s famous Milan bakery, the one that made him a star among foodies (and people like Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz). The shelves were lined with Italian-esque baked goodies, far more extravagant than your average cafe. Imagine the fanciest Panera Bread you’ve ever been in, folks… and you aren’t even close.
According to Princi himself, the cafe reflects the spirito di Milano. He grew up in southern Italy — in a village in Calabria, without running water, electricity, or utilities. There was only one bakery (and only one oven) in the entire town, and he apprenticed there at the age of 14 after becoming fascinated with the smell and textures of breads, flours, baking, and yeast. His only pay for two years was two loaves of bread a day, and for him, that was worth it. That small-town artisanal bakery feel somehow manages to translate perfectly inside of a Starbucks. I’m trying to imagine the same sort of thing at an Arby’s, and I can’t. Starbucks is uniquely suited to play host to a bakery like Princi.
On my tour, we were able to taste the Pane (breads) right in front of the people who made it. Imagine a room full of journalists gorging themselves while looking nervously at a room full of equally anxious bakers. In this fishbowl setting, I tried the signature Princi loaf, the spongy focaccia, and the cereali ciabatta: excellent introductions to the Italian style. But it wasn’t until I took a bite of the Princi cornetti that I fell in love. A cornetti is the Italian version of a croissant, but don’t call them croissants, or you’ll deeply offend Italians. (Though they’re definitely the same exact freaking thing as croissants.) Whatever they were, they were excellent, and I couldn’t get enough of them.
Next came pizza on focaccia bread. This wasn’t just your average pizza: it was reminiscent of an actual pizzeria in Italy, with flavors like margherita and verdure grigilia (grilled vegetables) that were not to be missed or forgotten. I never imagined a world in which I’d be actively choosing to eat pizza, my absolute favorite food, at a Starbucks… but here we were, doing just that.
Minutes later, we were served an olive sfilatini pistacchio mortadella — which, as far as I know, was basically a bologna sandwich on olive bread, except with a fancier name. I gotta admit though… I was scared. The description didn’t sound so appetizing. Damn, was I wrong.
The bread was perfectly chewy with briny bites of olive, and the deli meat was far from the boring, flavorless stuff we usually pack on our sandwiches. Give me more sfialtini with olives and pistachios, please. Give me more mortadella bologna, straight from the actual town of Bologna, Italy. Oscar Mayer can die mad about it.
The mortadella and all of the other specialty ingredients at the bakery are hand-selected by Rocco Princi himself and are of the highest quality. The Starbucks and Princi head bakers spent weeks touring Italy (what a difficult job!) to find real Parmesan cheese from Parma, high quality olive oil, and the highest quality flour, of course. Real talk: That craftsmanship was never more evident than in the humble Italian version of a bologna sandwich.
At the end of the tour, we finally got to test the desserts that had been tempting me from the beginning. We had a decadent tiramisu, a dark chocolate tart, a delizia al limone (lemon delight) cake, crostata fragola (strawberry pie) and of course, Starbucks Reserve Princi blend coffee: similar to Pike Place blend, with just a little extra richness from the fruity, roasted notes. All in all, everything tasted amazing. It was incredible to imagine that all of this came from inside a Starbucks when I felt like I had just been transported to Milan. Princi didn’t even speak English, and spoke to us through a translator.
That’s how authentic the whole experience felt. It was nothing short of an international miracle, brought to us by the power of globalization. Take that, xenophobes!
It’s important to note here that Starbucks hasn’t bought Princi: they are merely investors. So while Starbucks is helping to bring Princi to America, the direction of Princi is still basically under control by the man himself: Rocco Princi. Investors have been offering to buy his store for decades, or serve his bread in their restaurants, or put money into the bakery to help expand his stores from their London and Milan locations. But he always told them “no” — because they wanted to open up new locations quickly and sacrifice quality for quantity. As Princi told me, through his translator, “Someone starts talking bottom line to me? I stop. No compromise on quality.” Princi refuses to compromise on his quality ingredients, and according to him, Starbucks was one of the few to respect that… even though it took a few years of Schultz’s convincing to get him to partner with the venti-sized corporate coffee chain.
That said, and even with a corporate powerhouse behind them, I must disappoint you: Princi cafes will be opening, internationally, very slowly. Unless you live in a town with a Reserve Roastery, you’re unlikely to see a Princi cafe next year or any time soon. They won’t be popping up like daisies off the interstate, tempting us to take Exit 43 to grab a bite of pure Milanese bread. For now, you can only visit the Starbucks Reserve Roastery Princi location in Seattle, or if you like, visit the original cafes in London or Milan. I can tell you it’s worth it, and I can tell you that if any corporate food brand is doing it right, it’s Starbucks.
No, seriously: let your cynicism down for one minute and trust me on this. The partnership is truly the spirito di Milano.