Starbucks Hits the Coffee Capital of the World

Starbucks coffee shops have come to Vienna, Austria. The U.S. chain is not faring quite as well as hoped, and store managers are finding they must co-exist with traditional home-grown coffee shops in what some refer to as the coffee capital of the world.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

When American coffee giant Starbucks opened a few years ago in Austria, it intended to take the capital, Vienna, by storm, but the chain's rapid expansion hasn't been so easy. The Viennese are loyal to their cafe mit schlag. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

It's a busy day in Starbucks' flagship Vienna store, strategically located right across the street from the famous Sacker Hotel and Cafe.

Unidentified Man #1: This is a strawberries and cream cappuccino.

HARRIS: As in Starbucks around the world, the cashier takes orders and money, then sends customers to the end of the counter to pick up their drinks.

Unidentified Man #2: One euro-40 change. Your ticket and your drinks for you under the red lamp at ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #3: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #2: Thank you. Bye-bye.

HARRIS: This Starbucks shop attracts a lot of tourists. Many say they come because they know exactly what they'll get. But there are Viennese here, too. University student Valentine Minnedeta(ph) likes Starbucks' creature comforts.

Mr. VALENTINE MINNEDETA (Student): Air conditioned, the clean toilets. You know, basically, it's not the coffee or something like that which attracts me, because in Vienna, we are a city of coffee, and so we have much more better cafes, which are not chains like Starbucks. But Starbucks, you know, it's like it's nice to lounge if you're a non-smoker because they've got very comfortable cushions, and that's that.

HARRIS: Things are different at Hawelka, one of Vienna's classic coffeehouses.

Mr. GUNTHER HAWELKA (Hawelka): I make a milage(ph), Vienna milage. I take...

HARRIS: Sixty-five-year-old Gunther Hawelka is here nearly every day, pulling coffee, baking buns and serving both on small silver trays to seated customers. His father, who ran the place for decades, sits near the entrance wearing a jacket and tie.

(Soundbite of coffee grinder)

HARRIS: The coffee grinder spits out the regular amount for a milage. Hawelka presses in a few extra fingerfuls to make this one just as strong as the customer wants. Tourists come here, too, and faithful customers, like Ruth Schupay(ph), who's never heard of Starbucks.

Ms. RUTH SCHUPAY (Customer): I don't understand Starbucks. No, I don't know it, no. I like the traditional coffeehouses. It's the atmosphere and the tradition and the history and it makes the atmosphere.

(Soundbite of coffeehouse operations)

HARRIS: Hawelka hosted a thriving artists' scene in its prime in the 1960s. This coffeehouse has been memorialized in poetry and prose. Starbucks arrived in Vienna in December 2001 intending to open one store a month. Since then, it's opened 11 and closed two.

Mr. MAXIMILLIAN FLATZA(ph) (Austria Coffee Association): I think it's a little bit difficult in Vienna for Starbucks.

HARRIS: Maximillian Flatza heads Austria's Coffee Association and runs a coffeehouse of his own.

Mr. FLATZA: We had coffeehouses here when America was discovered.

HARRIS: But he says the arrival of Starbucks also helped traditional coffee shops.

Mr. FLATZA: It was a lot in the press, the daily press about Starbucks and the Viennese coffeehouses. They were talking about coffee, and so it was good also for the Viennese coffeehouses.

(Soundbite of coffeehouse operations)

HARRIS: Starbucks makes it part of its mission to talk about coffee. For the opening of its newest shop, a Starbucks employee guides a few local journalists through an exercise of smelling things--cinnamon, flowers, dirt--then sniffing and slurping coffee from Indonesia, Africa and Guatemala. The company calls this an Aroma Lab. CEO of Starbucks Austria Aurs Schaub(ph) says employees go through this and sometimes customers, too.

Mr. AURS SCHAUB (Starbucks Austria): No, it's called a Customer Coffee Seminar, and it's always very useful to do coffee from the three regions because they do have very different taste profile, and that always helps the customer to understand that there is different coffee in the world.

HARRIS: It's an issue that has not come up in Maximillian Flatza's experience.

Mr. FLATZA: Here, in the traditional coffeehouse, I never heard somebody ask, `Is the coffees from Brazil or from South America or from Africa or from Vietnam?'

HARRIS: Proprietors and customers alike say Starbucks can co-exist with Vienna's traditional coffeehouses because they are very different creatures. But in some ways, they're strikingly similar, too. Flatzer recently added frappes to his menu and offers take-out coffee.

Mr. FLATZER: Two years ago, we buy, I think, a thousand paper cups. I think we have still 932. That's what we learn from Starbucks, no, to make a little bit more money.

HARRIS: His coffeehouse still serves as something of an office for one of Austria's most famous film directors, following a Vienna tradition of coffee shops as living rooms where people from different backgrounds mix. It's a lot like Starbucks' marketing concept of its shops as communal third spaces, second only to home and work. Katherine Gillam just moved to Vienna from western Austria. She's sold on Starbucks.

Ms. KATHERINE GILLAM (Customer): I just love the chairs, lolling around. And once I came here three we--when I was looking for a job here and I was so tired on that day and I just went to sleep for half an hour here, and nobody cared, and I love that.

HARRIS: Traditional coffeehouse owners would almost certainly approve, but note their shops come with a waiter who would probably remember to wake you, if you wished, and would deliver a fresh coffee to your table. Emily Harris, NPR News.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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