A Shot of Adaptability: Howard Hughes and the Evolution of Il Giornale

Shah Mohammed
4 min readNov 23, 2023

In the mid-1980s, Howard Hughes, employed as a manager at Starbucks, envisioned transforming the coffee bean-selling enterprise into an espresso bar, inspired by his research in Italy. Witnessing the vibrant espresso bar culture, immersive coffee experiences, and engaging Barista-customer interactions at coffee shops in Italy, Hughes was eager to introduce a similar atmosphere at Starbucks. However, the founders were resistant, preferring to stick to the sale of coffee beans rather than delve into the coffee-serving and restaurant business. Despite several attempts, Howard’s vision was not embraced, leading him to part ways with Starbucks and establish his own coffee store, Il Giornale, dedicated to serving Italian-style espresso.

Il Giornale achieved instant success under Hughes’s leadership. Emphasizing speedy service, authentic quality, and cleanliness, the coffee shop quickly gained popularity. Despite this achievement, Howard and his colleagues made several mistakes during the operation of the coffee shop. However, their ability to adapt and learn from mistakes played a crucial role in the overall success.

One significant error was the initial determination to recreate a purely authentic Italian coffee bar experience in Seattle. The team was steadfast in preserving the integrity of espresso and replicating the ambiance of Italian coffee bars. This commitment, while rooted in a desire for authenticity, posed challenges as the cultural and customer preferences in Seattle differed from those in Italy.

Every detail at Il Giornale reflected this commitment. Italian opera played in the background, mirroring the tradition of music in Italian coffee bars. Baristas were outfitted in white shirts and bow ties, echoing the attire of their Italian counterparts. National and international newspapers adorned the walls, contributing to the authentic atmosphere. The menu featured Italian words, and the decor was meticulously curated to transport customers to an Italian setting.

Howard Hughes possessed a significant skill — he was good at observing customers, studying their behavior, and seeking to understand the reasons behind their actions. Studying customers in their natural environment provides valuable insights into their actions and emotions. This understanding serves as a guiding principle for refining products or services, ensuring they cater to both the physical and emotional needs of users.

Hughes’s observations yielded valuable insights. Notably, he realized that some of the Italian details he had recreated were not suitable for Seattle. This realization underscored the importance of adapting products to different contexts based on varying customer requirements. For instance, the continuous opera music, which worked well in Italy, did not resonate with Seattle customers. Facial and body reactions conveyed an unconscious aversion to the incessant opera songs. Similarly, the impracticality of bow ties on baristas became apparent.

Furthermore, Howard recognized the diverse preferences of Seattle customers, who were not in a hurry and desired a comfortable seating arrangement. Some Italian foods and drinks were unfamiliar, necessitating translation for better understanding. Gradually, Hughes and his team embraced the need to adapt the store to meet the specific needs and preferences of their customers, adding chairs, varying the music, and making other adjustments to enhance the overall customer experience. This adaptive approach ultimately contributed to the sustained success of Il Giornale in Seattle.

Adaptability and continuous user research emerge as a central theme in this story. Faced with resistance to the introduction of the espresso bar concept at Starbucks, Hughes and his team showcased a remarkable ability to adapt. They not only recognized their mistakes but also embraced the need for change, making adjustments that better aligned with the unique dynamics of the Seattle market.

A pivotal aspect of Il Giornale’s success lies in its customer-centric approach. Hughes’s astute observation of customer behaviors and preferences mirrored the principles of user research in design thinking. This deliberate focus on understanding the needs of the customers guided the refinement of both products and services, ensuring they resonated with the target audience.

Cultural sensitivity emerges as a key takeaway from this journey. The story underscores the importance of recognizing and respecting local culture and preferences. While the authentic Italian coffee bar experience was a noble aspiration, Il Giornale’s evolution revealed that a successful business must adapt its offerings to align with the specific cultural context of its operating environment.

The commitment to continuous improvement is a recurrent theme. Hughes and his team embraced the iterative nature of the business process, unafraid to make changes. Whether through the addition of chairs, variation in music, or translation of menu items, this commitment underscored the essential role of adaptability and evolution in achieving long-term success.

Finally, the emphasis on localization in business underscores the vital role of tailoring products and services to suit the specific characteristics and preferences of the local market. This understanding is crucial for success, transcending the coffee industry and finding relevance in various sectors where meeting customer needs is paramount for sustained success.

In summary, the Il Giornale story encapsulates a holistic narrative of adaptability, customer-centricity, cultural sensitivity, and continuous improvement. These lessons serve as a compass not just for coffee businesses but for any enterprise navigating the dynamic landscape of customer satisfaction and market dynamics.