It seemed so brash and, to many Viennese, so American when Starbucks arrived three years ago bearing Frappuccinos and caramel macchiatos into this proud capital of coffeehouse...
VIENNA, Austria — It seemed so brash and, to many Viennese, so American when Starbucks arrived three years ago bearing Frappuccinos and caramel macchiatos into this proud capital of coffeehouse culture.
The coffee chain established its beachhead on prime real estate across from the famed Hotel Sacher and the Vienna State Opera. This, management said, was only the beginning. Starbucks would open a new store at least every month. By 2005, there would be 60 in Austria.
But with 2005 days away, Starbucks’ Austrian empire stands at eight stores, all in and around Vienna. That’s down from 10 — two didn’t make it, including one at a high-profile spot by the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s beloved outdoor market.
The perceived travails of what one newspaper called the “U.S. paper-cup store” have inspired no small amount of “schadenfreude.”
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“We don’t want to burst out in unrestrained coffeehouse chauvinism here,” said a recent commentary in the daily Die Presse. “But a little satisfaction that not every standardized global chain can just take over the Naschmarkt is allowed.”
Starbucks arguably has done little to inspire such gloating. It hasn’t driven local coffeehouses out of business. It doesn’t advertise and, aside from the hype of its grand opening, has turned out to be a relatively unobtrusive presence in the city.
Nevertheless, for some Vienna cafe partisans, the American chain symbolizes the insidious creep of globalization. The traditional coffeehouse, in this view, stands as a noble bulwark against the uniformity brought on by mass culture.
“Individuality is the core argument for the coffeehouse,” said Tobias Leibetseder, a patron at Cafe Jelinek in Vienna. Table mate Angelika Karner said she’d never been to Starbucks and wasn’t planning to do so.
“It is just too American for me,” she said.
The Viennese coffeehouse, almost by definition, offers free newspapers and an oxygen supply severely compromised by the fug of cigarette smoke. Coffee is brought to the table — ideally, by a surly, tuxedo-clad waiter — on a small silver tray, accompanied by a glass of water with the coffee spoon balanced on top.
Cafe Jelinek is one of thousands of coffeehouses playing a cherished role in the life of the city. For decades, it was run by the Knapps. Guenther took care of the kitchen and made the coffee, but Maria’s benevolent dictatorship set the tone.
Children, dogs and cellphones were forbidden to disturb the shabby cafe’s hushed ambience. A sign above the vintage, wood-burning stove informed customers that “whoever is in a hurry will not be served,” a decree that Frau Knapp had no qualms about enforcing.
Beset with hip problems and migraines, Maria Knapp wanted to retire, threatening to consign Jelinek to history. But the Haases and Schiffners, two couples who ran a traditional restaurant across the street, persuaded her to let them take over at the start of 2004.
“We always liked the place, and we always wanted to have it,” Manfred Haas said. “We also didn’t want anyone to destroy it.”
Cafe Jelinek patrons, including an American, recoiled at the idea of a chain coffee house.
“I refuse to go to Starbucks,” said Alys George, a Stanford graduate student living in Vienna. “They are so generic. They all look the same.”
George can be found in Cafe Jelinek several times a week, working on her dissertation on turn-of-the-century Austrian literature.
“You can come here, and to most of the coffeehouses in Vienna, order a coffee, sit for four or five hours, read the paper, and nobody cares,” she said.
In this context, Starbucks’ offer of a “third space” between home and work appears redundant.
“It’s a difficult market. It’s not like in the States,” said Peter Aigner, who handles marketing for Starbucks in Austria.
Coffee-to-go gets a bad rap, Aigner said, and many Viennese persist in believing, falsely, that they will be forced to drink out of a paper cup.
“They also compare it with fast-food chains, where you go in, eat quickly and leave,” he said. “The typical Austrian just does not have America in mind when he thinks of coffee.”
Cheerful, clean-living Starbucks also may be at a disadvantage in that, unlike Viennese coffeehouses, it serves no alcohol. It also bans smoking in a city where few restaurants have a no-smoking section.
But Carl Hauch, managing director of Starbucks in Austria and Switzerland, says the no-smoking policy has won the chain a following.
“We are almost an oasis for a lot of people,” he said, “especially young mothers with children.”
Hauch, an American who took over in October 2003, wouldn’t comment on Starbucks’ ambitions.
“Our sales are up strongly; we see the business growing,” Hauch said. “Some of the customer comments show we are meeting some needs.”
He called the closure of the two stores in Vienna “a real-estate decision, not a comment on potential success.”
Starbucks may have found Vienna’s Naschmarkt unwelcoming, but Johanna Wechselberger snapped up the space as soon as the coffee chain left it, opening the Mocca Club cafe and coffee roaster in October.
Mocca Club looks less like a Viennese coffeehouse than an upscale Starbucks, with colonial-themed decor and more than 40 varieties of coffee. There are armchairs, the service is suspiciously friendly, and although smoking is allowed, Wechselberger doesn’t encourage the practice by putting ashtrays on the tables. But in a nod to Viennese tradition, there is table service, and the coffee arrives on a gleaming silver tray, complete with water and spoon.
Wechselberger, a Vienna native who says business is thriving, has a soft spot for the classic coffeehouse but does not disdain innovation. She chats with American coffee-shop owners in forums online and even took part in a “how to open a coffee shop” seminar at Coffee Fest in Seattle, the birthplace of Starbucks.
“There were so many good marketing tips,” she said. “The Americans are way ahead there.”