Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Prague opens its first Starbucks (but definitely not its last)

At three o' clock in the afternoon on opening day of the new Starbucks on Malostranské náměstí, the area around the coffee shop's cash registers was crowded with customers. About a third of them had already paid and were waiting for their drinks to be whipped up by the staff behind the bar. As each order was finished, a barista placed the labeled cup on the counter.
"Grande chai latte for Sandra!" A young woman in dreadlocks went to get her tea, but before she could reach it, an older lady muscled her way through the crowd and grabbed the cup.

"That's my coffee!" the lady snapped in Czech as she snatched the drink. "I was here before you!"

"Yes," the younger woman said patiently, "but did you order a grande chai latte? And is your name Sandra?"

"Yes, it is! Well, no it isn't. But my name is Soukupová, and it says Soukupová on the cup."

"No," said the young woman, pointing to where the barista had clearly written 'Sandra' on the cup in pencil. "It says Sandra."

The older woman dug her reading glasses out from her purse. She put them on and squinted at the cup. "It says Soukupová," she confirmed. "I was here first." The lady strode out of the shop, chai latte in hand.
A minute later, the barista called out, "One tall caffè latte for Soukupová!" The dreadlocked girl, a 22-year-old Czech native named Alexandra ("they only understood the Sandra part"), exchanged glances with me.

"I used to live in Washington, D.C.," she said. "I got used to going to Starbucks over there, so I was excited when I heard they were opening here. But what you saw just now -- that's Starbucks in Prague. That's the Čecháčství [loosely translatable as 'Czechism'], you know?" Alexandra rolled her eyes. "Enchanting."

Alexandra may have used the word sarcastically, but more than a few people really did seem enchanted by the official opening of Prague's first Starbucks on Tuesday. One notable customer was a very eager 90-year-old man, who was spotted by Starbucks Czech Republic's marketing manager, Alina Tyszkiewicz, at the 9 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony.

"He was jumping up and down. He was so excited that there was a café here again," Tyszkiewicz said, referring to the historical literary
café that once stood in the same location. "For us, it was a kind of confirmation that we were right to bring Starbucks to this spot."

As I sipped my sickly-sweet chai latte (a tall -- small -- chai tea latte contains 32 grams of sugar, about 10% of its total volume), I overheard the man sitting next to me talking on his cell phone. "Hey, come check it out!" he said to his friend half-jokingly. "We're experiencing Starbucks."

I wondered how long the general enthusiasm would last. Lots of locals appeared to be coming by to see what all the fuss was about, but some of them didn't seem too impressed.

"I'm used to Italian espresso joints where you get coffee in a minute," said Jadran Šetlík, a 56-year-old local. "Here I had to wait twenty minutes because all these people were jumping ahead of me. Next time I'll consider whether I want to go through that again. But in the end, the coffee is good."
Šetlík's last point is debatable -- coffee connoisseurs almost unanimously shun Starbucks on account of its low-quality, heavily-roasted beans -- but local management is confident that the American mega-chain will find its share of regular customers in Prague.

"We expect this to be a kind of meeting point, a place where people can hang out and read books and surf the internet," says Tyszkiewicz. Is she and her team planning to provide the city with more such meeting points?

"Definitely," Tyszkiewicz says with a grin, and confirms that Starbucks will be opening another branch in Palladium shopping mall by the end of February. "We're always looking for ways to expand."
Considering Starbucks's enormous global reach of over 15,000 stores, that's no surprise. I have to admit, though, that I was a little rattled when I was asked to shell out 180 CZK for a small chai and a medium caffè latte. That kind of thing seemed okay in New York, but in Prague? For coffee in a paper cup?

At these prices, no wonder people are getting possessive over their drinks. But try not to get too upset if someone snatches your cup away from the pickup counter.

After all, there's plenty more where that frappuccino came from.

All images property of The Prague Spoon.


Anonymous said...

Our hotel (The Castle Steps Hotel, Prague is just up the road, so unfortunately I will end up there at some stage. However, I fear that this is yet another step in the wrong direction. Small, traditional coffee shops owned by locals will be put out of business and replaced by an international chain.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of small, traditional coffee shops owned by locals that I would miss if they folded. Who needs the ubiquitous Illy crap anyway? Second, I question the extent to which Starbucks will put anyone out of business. I suspect Starbucks is not so much in the replacement business as it is in offering consumers a choice that didn't exist before. The little guy is safe from Starbucks -- it's CoffeeHeaven that needs to be worried. And third, don't blame Starbucks for fulfilling consumer demand. If you have objections to Starbucks' roasting, business model or taste in furniture, you should spend more to support to the little guy, not fold up like a lawn chair and grab a latte on the way to work.

Anonymous said...

People will always drink - low quality product that is over-roasted rather than a decent Italian or other good quality coffee because people believe marketing hype. There are any number of great cafes in Prague, and the fact that the coffee here is second rate will hopefully keep the less descerning out of them.
What was that quote from Hollywood, no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the masses.

pan cuketka said...

"Small, traditional coffee shops"


in Prague? I don't think so... Even with mainstream italian blends, coffe (and especially espresso) quality here is below mediocre. We have thousands of coffe shops and only hundrets of capable and educated baristas here. Czechs are used to drinking "dirty black water" instead of espresso (mostly very looong lungo treated with <6g of coffe from badly managed grinder) Starbucks can do no harm at all..., only opposite.

PragueBob said...

I moved to Prague from Seattle fifteen years ago when you could hardly find anything here but what we used to call "cowboy coffee" (boiling water poured directly over a cheap grind), so it feels more than a little strange to be passing by Starbucks a mere ten minutes walk from my flat. It's also funny that by the time Starbucks finally arrived, Czechs' taste buds have evolved to the point that many of them actually turn up their noses at the flavor. But I still have a weakness for that over-roasted Starbucks flavor, so I guess I'll succumb in a month or so after the crowds die down... :-)

Vassili said...

At 180Kc/$11 a Latte (in a paper cup), Starbuck is obviously not aiming at the mass market. Beyond the initial interest that will drive Czech there once, Starbuck's audience is probably more the nostalgic foreigners/tourists walking by or the wealhty locals looking for a change.

I am one of these, but at 180Kc/$11, I'll pass.

Anonymous said...

To the poster who opines "Who needs the ubiquitous Illy crap anyway?"

Jack DeNeut said...

I don't know why this idea persists that Starbucks puts independent coffeehouses out of business. That is in fact the opposite of what happens.

"According to recent figures from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, 57 percent of the nation's coffeehouses are still mom and pops. Just over the five-year period from 2000 to 2005—long after Starbucks supposedly obliterated indie cafes—the number of mom and pops grew 40 percent, from 9,800 to nearly 14,000 coffeehouses."

" Why Starbucks actually helps mom and pop coffeehouses", Slate, December 28, 2007

Anonymous said...

Dear author, why do you feel the urge to stress again and again that this person was "Czech" and that person was "Czech"? Yes, you are in a country inhabited by "Czechs". Are you still in such an awe because of it? Or do you perhaps think that anyone describing opening, say, a bakery in Boston would over and over repeat "An American lady came in", "American cashier overcharged me" and "the shop was full of Americans"?

Laura said...

Dear anonymous (katerina, perhaps?),

It's standard journalistic practice to identify the name and age of interviewees. This particular post deals with the local reaction to the opening of a famed American institution in Prague. For that reason, it's important to specify that the persons interviewed were in fact locals and not some of the many tourists and expats that were also in Starbucks that day. I hope that clarifies things for you.

As to the rest of you -- thank you for your comments. It's great to hear all the different opinions :-)

jana said...

just my two cents...

1) "small, traditional coffee shops owned by locals" sound really nice but i do not know any small, traditional coffee shop owned by czechs that would offer at least mediocre coffee to go. i have been living in Prague all my life, love coffee and honestly i do not consider starbucks bad at all. i am not a snob and the fact that many peple consider their coffee sub par does nto stop me from enjoying it. there are cafes owned by czechs (not many offer good coffee) and coffee shops that are part of foreign chains, big or small. sorry, there is actually no such thing ad "small, traditional coffee shops owned by locals"

2) to Vasili: 180 crowns was for two beverages.

3) went there today. there is something pleasant about the coffee being "like" the one in london or vienna.

4) to the athor: i suppose mr. setlik was not referring to italian espresso joints *in prague* but in italy (he is a photographer who travels often)

mmm... going to make myself a cup of coffee

Pivní Filosof said...

It seems that neither your average "presso s mlékem" nor the Starbucks' fancy concotions satisfy the specialists.
So let's consider the value for money factor.
Starbucks: About 100Kc for a cup for which I have to wait at the counter and I have to drink from a paper cup.
Your average Prague café: 30 to 50Kc for a cup that is brought to your table while you read the newspaper or your favourite book.

I agree with the comment above. Once the novelty and the hype pass, the only people that will visit Starbucks will be tourists and nostalgic expats.

žufanka said...

Well, wouldn´t it be lovely to get some of the global Starbucks atmosphere to Czech Rep.? Although I am afraid that with the "čecháčství" phenomenon it will be rather difficult. Yet I shall not give up! Thanks for a really interesting report, I would never guess that SB premiere in Czech Rep. would be such an event since until recently hardly anyone knew the name. Can´t wait to have one in Brno. Hopefully the crowd will leave soon and SB will become the usual peaceful chill-out place with comfy armchairs and cosy feeling...

Anonymous said...

"Well, wouldn´t it be lovely to get some of the global Starbucks atmosphere to Czech Rep.? Although I am afraid that with the "čecháčství" phenomenon it will be rather difficult."

What did you actually mean by this, zufanka?

I suspect you are about 20, recently spent a year in London as an au-pair, maybe later advanced your "career" taking a position of a dishwasher, and now you believe you are a real cosmopolitan hero. Wake up, you are ridiculous.

žufanka said...

Anonymous: I have never spent a year in London. Never been an au-pair and never washed dishes for money. I am closer to 30 than to 20 and I have spent almost 7 years of my life living abroad or traveling. Now what about you my dear? LOL

R. said...

Such lively debate!

I'd just like to point out to Pivni Filosof and others, that unlike at Coffee Heaven, at Starbucks you get your coffee in a porcelain mug if you drink it there. I always thought that Coffee Heaven was missing the mark by making everyone drink out of paper. Totally wasteful and the opposite of cozy.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha @ sandra vs soukupova. Nice one, Laura! Starbucks is McDonald's of the coffees and that's all I will say.

RAW said...

Starbucks is for dweebs and dorks. A Cafe Correto is where its at.

Vladimir said...

Starbucks at Malostranske namesti is not the issue of a price or quality of coffee as such. Just compare it to Vienesse Caffees. This one at the one of the best places in Prague is dirty and far from cozy and it does not have a hint of atmosphere. Let-off.


Anonymous said...

To Cuketka and Jana - "small, traditional coffee shops owned by locals" - I find a small lovely coffee bar, owned by locals - it is in Londynska str. and it is called Mama coffee. You simply can not compare to Starbucks - it is just a different universe... :)

komankova said...

Mama coffee surely has good coffee but for me the interior is not very cozy and seems too "health foodie place"...

Anonymous said...

I am a fund visitor of Praha,nice shops tipical east european style and fine taste, where I often visit on business trips as on holidays as well.
I went indeed to Starbucks to proof the atmosphere and the coffee:
it's once again big, no taste with some fake smiles.
The first essprsso came just cold as was the place.

The cappuccino cafe was worst!
in few words I just miss that Italian causy atmosphre and lovely warm taste, it is definetly a kind of Mc Donald's with another etiquette.