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.