Can customer interaction convince Italians to pay more for espresso?
Ditta Artigianale co-founder, Francesco Sanapo, and His Majesty Coffee owner, Paolo Scimone, discuss how Italian coffee bars can help justify the rising price of espresso.
Nowhere in the world is the espresso more highly regarded than in Italy.
Consumed daily by more than 90% of the population, it is more akin to an institution than a beverage. Indeed, in January 2022, an application for Unesco heritage status was made, claiming that the espresso’s cultural standing made it “much more than a drink”.
As well as being considered an essential good, it helps build relationships and promote social interaction. As such, it is often consumed out of home, including at coffee bars and workplaces. According to data from the International Coffee Organization (ICO), 73% of Italian consumers drink coffee outside their homes.
“In Italy, we don’t say ‘Let’s meet’,” says Francesco Sanapo, who runs a café and roastery in Florence. “We say, ‘Let’s have coffee’.”
To maintain this crucial aspect of Italy’s espresso drinking culture, it was traditionally rare to find anywhere outside of key tourist locations that charged more than €1 per espresso. This was in spite of an average inflation rate of 2.63% between 2002 and 2012.
However, in recent years, the price of an espresso has jumped. In 2020, Italian consumer group Codacons filed a complaint against the rising prices of espresso. Among other things, it had noticed that the price of an espresso in the centre of Rome had leapt from a pre-Covid average of €1.10 to €1.50.
This followed a similar complaint in 2018, in which the same group claimed Starbucks was “causing damage to Italian consumers” by charging above market prices for its coffees.
Although the outbreak of Covid-19 is partly to blame, some have identified a more subtle change not only in Italy’s espresso culture, but in its attitude to the quality of coffee across the board.
Why are prices rising?
According to Professor Jonathan Morris, reactions against bars deemed to be charging excessive prices are proof of the extent to which out-of-home coffee consumption is considered as an integral part of Italian existence.
As something so deeply rooted in the nation’s cultural identity, it is almost seen as a birthright that espresso should be affordable. Therefore, when prices rise and force people to brew their own coffee at home, it naturally provokes an angry reaction.
“People aren’t complaining about newspapers costing €2,” says Paolo Scimone, who runs His Majesty Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster in Villasanta, “but they do complain about paying €1.20 for espresso.”
However, in addition to rising energy costs, higher salaries, and disrupted supply chains, there is a reason espresso is steadily becoming more expensive – and that’s quality.
As the popularity of specialty coffee grows across Italy, low-cost robusta has increasingly been replaced by high-quality arabica beans. In 2020, the average price for a kilo of arabica coffee was more than double the price for a kilo of robusta at $3.32. This means that charging the same price for an espresso was out of the question.
Francesco’s café, Ditta Artigianale, was among the first to raise prices back in 2013. He says that although it was met with considerable backlash, he was left with no other choice.
“We have amazing equipment, highly skilled baristas, and high-quality coffee beans,” Francesco explains. “So we increased prices by 50% and consumers were shocked. But it isn’t sustainable to pay so little for espresso. Maintaining the same price would have meant reducing quality.
“However, to us, it’s more important to offer high-quality espresso. We are on a mission to write a new chapter in Italian coffee history in which espresso is the protagonist.”
The importance of communication
By being among the first to break the €1 barrier, Francesco was taking a sizeable risk. He faced the prospect of losing customers and coming in for significant criticism – which, for a time, he did.
However, he soon found that the key to getting people on side was communication. As soon as he explained the reasons behind the price rise, most customers were open to the idea of paying more than other coffee bars.
“Communication is the hardest part of barista work because, most of the time, you don’t know whom you are talking to,” he says. “But it’s important to realise that customers care more about the story of your coffee’s social and ecological impact than technical data or information about the green coffee supplier.”
To gauge customers’ expectations and tailor conversations based on their level of interest, he advises asking questions.
“Find out if it’s their first time drinking specialty coffee,” he says. “And ask questions like whether they would be open to trying an espresso without sugar.”
While Paolo agrees, he stresses the importance of not only good communication, but also impeccable customer service.
“Some new Italian specialty coffee shops are a bit aggressive,” he explains, “and Italy is famous for hospitality. Cafés need to offer top customer service. Smile, serve espresso with a glass of water, use simple words, avoid technical words, drive customers smoothly through the café experience, invite them to try something fruity, something acidic, more complex than they’re used to.
“If you keep customer service super high, people don’t complain about the price because the experience is worth it.”