An Op-Ed piece in Monday’s Washington Post noted the curious phenomenon of local culture that is exported, reinterpreted abroad, and then imported back again. The article’s topic was the wildly received recent openings of Starbucks cafés in cities such as Warsaw and Prague — with the backdrop of their centuries-old coffeehouse culture traditions: Anne Applebaum – A Starbucks State of Mind – washingtonpost.com.
We’ve witnessed this phenomenon before with the all-American burger joint/diner. A little over a decade ago, these establishments rose in popularity as a cultural export within a number of Southeast Asian cities, such as Taipei, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Several years later, imported versions of these Asian-flavored burger joints showed up in Southern California. (You could always tell when curry powder, pickled cucumbers, and vinegar made their way into the menu.) So why would Starbucks be greeted like coffeehouse “liberators” in Eastern Europe — while many Westerners now view the brand as an overpriced, jumped-the-shark, frivolous luxury that diluted its quality in pursuit of industrialized mass production?
The article’s author notes that the stylish Eastern European cafés of the 19th century served as island respites from dreary conditions at home and an opportunity to aspire to the comforts of the upper classes. Today, after the European café of old was exported to Seattle and transformed into a culture of vapid Sting CDs and gargantuan milkshakes sloshed into to-go paper cups, Starbucks arrival in cities such as Warsaw and Prague once again represents the opportunity to aspire to the world’s upwardly mobile classes in the shadow of Communism’s collapse.
1995: Seattle First Invades Prague
The author also makes mention of Eastern Europe’s preceding decade of Starbucks knock-offs, which reminded me of when I visited Prague in 1995. Back then, Prague was in the throes of its post-Communism reconstruction and remodeling phase. A layer of dust covered the city, and it seemed like PVC pipe was sold on every corner. (I remember remarking at the time how I could have made a killing opening a Home Depot chain there.)
I quickly became a regular at a coffee shop in the historic Staré Město district called Pražská Káva — or, quite simply, “Prague Coffee” — located at U-Zlatého-hada (or “at the golden snake” in Prague’s historic addressing system, and today on a street named Karlova, just across the Charles Bridge). They boasted “Seattle style lattes.” While Starbucks was still largely an unknown there in 1995, the Western appeal for “Seattle style” coffee beverages was clear to anyone who collected money from American tourists. Having been in Seattle just a few months prior, I was actually quite surprised how well Pražská Káva’s lattes measured up to their Seattle counterparts — and how you could get a good espresso in town for only about 20-25 Kč (about $1 U.S. at today’s exchange rates).
Oddly, that was probably the first café I ever gravitated towards just for the quality of their espresso. Although I found the espresso quality around Prague to be generally quite decent at the time, I also suffered my worst coffee experience ever in Prague — a styrofoam cup of traditional Czech “coffee” purchased at the Vyšehrad castle, which I can only describe as grainy sawdust suspended in hot water.
Sadly, Pražská Káva was replaced years ago by a hotel and restaurant. We suspect that today’s infiltration of Starbucks there will do more to lower the imported “Seattle style” standards that Pražská Káva once held.
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