Here’s an item in today’s news: Nestle reportedly to open luxury coffee shop in Brazil – MarketWatch. In some parts of the world, Nestlé’s Nespresso system, at least on the surface, appears to be making money hand-over-fist for them. Part of Nestlé’s strategy has been to open up Nespresso stores in places such as Geneva, Zurich, Vienna, Paris, and Moscow.

Lisbon is no exception. The Nespresso store in Lisbon’s Chiado district offers window displays of the latest Nespresso machines. Inside, once you look past all the customers and curious onlookers in the store, you encounter a lighted wall of machine choices. And in back, where the store is particularly jammed, you notice the many clerks, buzzing around like busy worker bees in front of a Nespresso refill “hive” of sorts. Add the number of Nespresso bags you see shoppers carrying in the streets, and you realize that the store’s success is perhaps more than a novelty fad.

It starts at the Lisbon airport: "20 seconds to transform this jewel into a masterpiece" Window dressing at the Chiado Nespresso

This posed a great mystery to me. How could a culture so dependent on good espresso seem so smitten, at least from what I could tell, with the mediocre quality of an at-home pod machine and it’s pre-ground, pre-packaged coffee? Personally, I would buy a simple Bialetti long before I’d buy one of these systems.

To solve this mystery, I think you have to start by looking a little into the Portuguese psyche. Different cultures will have different motivations, of course. But the reasons behind Lisbon’s unexpected fascination with Nespresso may have parallels in other countries where sales are healthy.

"Let's see - should I get the circular fireplug or the oval?" Nespresso worker bees guard the hive

Why would anyone want one of these?

First of all, the Portuguese are infatuated with modern design. Bright orange is arguably the national color. And a little unlike Italy, where historical preservation carries a tremendous reverence, the Portuguese are less reluctant to throw out the old to make way for the new. Particularly when it comes to their personal living environment. (And Lisbon is perhaps one of the greatest contrast studies between the very old and very new, coexisting side-by-side.) So from a modernist perspective, the idea of a cubic Nespresso machine in the home is quite aspirational.

Another factor: historically, the Portuguese have not made espresso at home — other than the stovetop moka pot. Good espresso is ubiquitous in Portugal’s streets, so there hasn’t been a motivation to make something at home that’s half as good. It’s a similar story in Italy. However, the quality of espresso from typical home machines has improved greatly over the past decade. And when you combine Nespresso’s modern design with its compact size (interior space being another thing in short supply in Portugal), the home espresso machine becomes an achievable luxury item.

I don’t see Nespresso having the same appeal in America as it does in, say, Portugal. American kitchens have grown much larger — like our SUVs and dinner plates — to accommodate bigger appliances. Modern design is nice, but it’s not an obsession here. And Americans primarily drink coffee at home — and have for decades. If anything, Americans are just now learning to appreciate more of the joys of having a coffee out.

But if you are ever accosted by Nespresso salespeople while walking through a kitchen store (as I have been multiple times), do yourself a favor and just tell them it’s the best coffee you’ve ever had and you’re already stocked up for the winter. I unfortunately learned this the hard way.

Even George Clooney is pimping for Nespresso in Portugal: "Coffee with body and soul"

UPDATE: November 10, 2006
While Nestlé is rolling in Euros, it seems that Kraft Foods’ Tassimo competitor is ailing in the U.S. — according to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times: Kraft’s Tassimo falls short of expectations – Los Angeles Times.

UPDATE: November 28, 2006
Be very afraid. Nespresso ads with George Clooney are coming to a TV near you: Quirky coffee ad takes a jibe at Clooney’s “dark intense body”! However, this could be the sort of thing that Clooney’s image handlers might allow in Japan but not the U.S.