Last month saw the London opening of an Italian coffee chain that harbours ambitions to reassert Italy’s easily overlooked status as the godfather of espresso - since its position was usurped around the globe by Starbucks and its bastard (in the nicest possible way) offspring. I know what you’re thinking: "Great, that’s just what the UK needs, another branded coffee chain."
But to Ca’ppucino’s founder Giacomo Moncalvo, this venture is not about shouldering your way into a crowded marketplace and shouting "Me too!" Instead, he’s on a mini-mission to remind people what the Italian coffee bar experience is all about.
And who can blame him? Starbucks’ seeds were sewn when CEO Howard Schultz visited Milan in 1982 and returned to the US with a mission to transform his coffee bean stores into espresso cafés; in an ironic twist, it has since begun colonising Italy.
By and large, the domestic Italian coffee scene is, and always has been, dominated by independent bars. Bearing in mind most Italians’ suspicion of coffee chains, it’s an achievement in itself that the Ca’puccino brand has rolled out five stores in Italy over three years.
While many coffee chains have an Italian ring to them (think Costa, Caffè Nero, Ritazza), Maria Chiara Bonazzi, who worked as project manager for the Harrods launch on behalf of consultant Barabino & Partners UK, says the Ca’puccino concept stands apart, because it goes all guns blazing to hammer home its Italian credentials, rather than offer an Americanised version of coffee-drinking.
"The fact that they’ve managed to do four and they’re doing so well means there’s something quite special about the product," she says. "There’s a bit of a mission behind it: to give the experience of how a proper espresso is supposed to be drunk from an Italian perspective, not an American perspective. The Italians have always been very good at the staples of great food, pasta, pizza and coffee. But once the family tradition is gone, the company doesn’t move forward. Ca’puccino is actually trying to export a family concept."
With Starbucks on 16,000 stores, that battle is probably lost, even though the numbers are dwindling in the US. Even so, the firm is keen to export the brand outside of Italy, and the first UK branch is seen as a toe-dipping exercise into foreign markets. "How far they go depends on many things," explains Bonazzi. "It’s very hard to decide where to draw the line between expansion and compromising your product."
Many firms tout the ’no compromise on quality’ line, but with Ca’puccino, you suspect they may have it tattooed across their chests. Every food item you see there has been developed by one person, and one person only - head of food research Roberto Quaglia - who takes a scarily fanatical approach to NPD.
Every single product is an original variety, taking around 18 months or more to develop - per product. All the patisserie and bread used in sandwiches is exclusive to Ca’puccino. "What you eat here, you can only buy in one of our stores in Italy, and nowhere else," says Moncalvo. "The chef has an obsession - it can take him up to three years to develop one product; for one sandwich he developed, it took him 18 months to decide on the right bread."
As such, the marketer’s gospel of ’know thy customer’ flew out of the window, as he admits not having researched British tastes, instead hoping a cosmopolitan customer base would embrace the totally Italian offer. "We’ve tried to make a real Italian chain," says Moncalvo. "And I like to try out real Italian products here. We find all the typical recipes from Alba, from Naples, from Torrino, from Milano, Capri, Mantova and recreated them. When Harrods approached me, I decided, absolutely, not to change the offer."
He doesn’t compromise on price either, with an eat-in panini costing a platinum card-sapping £5.90-£8.90 - fine for a Harrods shopper but a barrier to mass-market appeal. For the time being, though, he’s happy to see how the Harrods basement store pans out before looking for another site. "London is very competitive - everywhere there is coffee," he says. "There will be an expansion, but we’re never going to be a Starbucks."
Not that he’s intimidated by the vast competition here. "In Genoa, there are 23 coffee bars within 1km, so it’s nothing!"
=== The brief ===
Harrods approached Ca’puccino with a view to bringing an authentic Italian cafeteria concept to London. This struck a chord with the firm’s ambitions to develop a chain, both in Italy and abroad. The existing outlets are located in shopping malls in Italy, and the first overseas outlet was the first to be situated in a top-end department store. This had to be executed without compromising the obsessive standards of the Italian-made products.
=== The execution ===
Following a year of negotiation with Harrods, Ca’puccino had four weeks to create the store at a cost of £450,000. It followed its own design scheme, based on coffee and milk colours, as seen back home. All furniture was produced bespoke for its branches. The effect, they say, is to "give customers the impression of entering a soft, creamy, enveloping cappuccino". Ca’puccino rents the space and will pay an additional royalty if it exceeds its projected turnover of £750,000.
=== Vital statistics ===
History: The brainchild of 33-year-old Giacomo Moncalvo, an entrepreneur who developed the concept after opening his first coffee bar in his mid-1920s, the Ca’puccino chain was launched in 2005 and has developed four outlets in Serravella Scrivia near Milan, Barberino di Mugello near Florence, Castel Romano near Rome and Genoa’s historical centre. The company is self-financing
Products: The menu was researched region by region throughout Italy over three years pre-launch; each of the sandwiches is named after an Italian city and is based on a local recipe - the regional theme runs across all products, designed to give a "giro d’Italia" (a Grand Tour of taste). Pastries are flown in pre-proved and frozen, while an impressive range of ice cream is made on site
Twists: The coffee in the Harrods branch is made by Italian cappuccino-making champion Mariano Semino (see pg 38 for his tips) and includes 12 espressos, spiked with, for example, pure chestnut or hazelnut paste, or made into drinkable tiramisu or panna cotta coffee
Standards: Moncalvo keeps his ingredients suppliers on their toes, insisting he won’t hesitate to switch tracks if there is any slipping of standards. He is not tied to any of the big coffee suppliers, and has developed his own blend made with five kinds of single-origin Arabica. "It is important to me that, tomorrow, I could change my blend, that I’m not tied to a factory and I can adapt to the market. In Italy, a lot of the bars are tied to coffee or croissant distributors and the quality is going down."