Messing With Mélange

After six years in Vienna, Starbucks still struggles for survival

On The Town | Kata Cserveny | October 2008

Corporate modernity vs. Kaffehaus “Gemütlichkeit” - who will prevail? (Photo: Annelies Guisset)

As I step through the door, I am greeted by the smell of fresh roasted coffee beans and smoke – the cold autumn breeze and hovering grey clouds are replaced by the cozy hum of conversation mixed with the distant chime of spoons on porcelain and the gargling of milk being foamed. Globes of warm light hang from the ceiling and smaller lamps with orange shades lean on the collage of posters and pictures, photographs and paintings on the wood-furnished walls. As I work my way through the narrow maze of paths that remain between the cluster of tiny marble tables, the diverse range of wooden chairs and striped velvet futons, I exchange a smile with the waiter: "One mélange please."

"Would you like a piece of fresh Apfelstrudel with it?" he asks me, addressing me informally, as he would an old friend who has just arrived and sat down in his living room. He brings the coffee promptly on an antique-looking silver tray, accompanied by a tiny glass of tap water topped with a tiny silver spoon beside an even tinier glass bowl containing two perfectly arranged cubes of sugar. As I lift the cup, I inhale the soothing scent of freshly brewed coffee and let my eyes wander over the rim, across the room: A man at a table by the door is sipping his coffee over a newspaper that extends beyond the borders of his bubble of privacy, seemingly unmindful of the busy murmurs around him. The table across from mine is occupied by two elderly couples, chatting away, sporadically nipping at their tiny coffee cups and indulging happily in a piece of warm apple strudel - the same I was offered upon arrival. I dip a cube of sugar in my coffee, waiting for it to soak up slowly, before dropping it into the cup. The coffee is hot and strong and delicious.

Café Hawelka is one of the most renowned Viennese coffee houses, first opened by Leopold Hawelka and his wife Josephine in 1939 and passed down in the family for meanwhile three generations. Though it was temporarily closed during World War II, the café later reopened, becoming the hot spot for artists and writers in the era of the Coffee House poets during the late 50’s and 60’s. Today, Hawelka is as heavily frequented as ever, having undergone little to no change for almost a century in terms of popularity or interior design.

At Café Hawelka, I feel at home; it is everything I need, whether it is company or solitude, relaxation or inspiration, quiet or commotion. The coffee is just a bonus. Four women – apparently German tourists - sit down at the table next to mine, chatting and giggling as they peel off the multitude of layers they are wearing to shield themselves from the chilly air outside. I can hardly contain my amusement when they ask the waiter for a menu. "We have coffee: strong or weak, tall or small, with milk or without. I can bring you hot chocolate too, apple strudel or sausages if you are hungry. So, what is it going to be?" The women laugh incredulously at the selection’s simplicity, and place their orders.

I smile as Mr. Hawelka himself dims the lighting over the two tables at the front of the café, right by the windows. I catch his eye, and he leans over to me, lowering his voice as if to share a great secret with me. "Now it is perfect: See those two lights? They cannot be on during the daylight hours. That is the tradition. If the old one comes, he will scold me. You cannot change the traditions as long as the old generation is still around."  In a Viennese coffeehouse, it is easy to forget the time. But not just in the sense of hours or minutes, even in terms of years and centuries. Lifting my eyes from the screen of my laptop, I would not in the least be surprised to find Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler or even Gustav Klimt at one of the adjacent tables, sipping mélange, reading a paper, discussing politics, or scribbling in their notepads like they used to. Little has changed between then and now; time passes by outside but stands still within, leaving the café oblivious to modernization, globalization, hybrid cars, the World Wide Web, war, revolution, global warming, corporate social responsibility … and even Starbucks. What started out as a small West-Coast coffee shop, discovered rather than founded and later bought by Howard Schultz in 1981, Starbucks is the fastest-growing restaurant-chain in the world today: it has approximately 16,000 stores worldwide, though exact estimates are hard to make given 1,000 new openings each year – that is three per day. With an annual turnover of $9.4 billion and an exemplary marketing strategy, which has repeatedly proven competitive attempts around the world futile, the global coffee giant seems uncompromising and unstoppable. Though once threatened by fast-food brother McDonalds, when the latter introduced its so-called McCafés and thereby caused Starbucks a 40% drop in market value, Starbucks now plans an expansion to 40,000 stores worldwide, therefore outgrowing their competitor who currently runs "only" 31,000 restaurants.

So, in an age when time is considered money, and speed and efficiency are key to success, when newer and bigger and faster and better are the words that make the world spin round; when global brands constitute the golden calves of our time, how does a place like Café Hawelka survive? Looking in from outside, it may easily appear just a matter of time before this venue, too, is conquered by a glistening storefront crowned by a green and white figurehead, home to a cozy interior designed by a former Disneyland architect, with a polished wood bar that incessantly spits monstrous recyclable paper cups of fair-trade Frapuccinos off the conveyor belt. However, in a town like Vienna, the matter is not quite that simple.

Legend has it that the first coffeehouse opened in Vienna in 1683 - more or less a result of the second Turkish Siege – laid the foundation for a century-old tradition. The Viennese fell in love with the bitter black brew and by 1714, there were eleven licensed coffee houses in the city. Almost 300 years later, in 2002, Starbucks opened their first Viennese settlement neighboring the state opera. The location was carefully selected by savvy marketing heads: the building had once been home to one of Vienna’s legendary cafés. It was expected to appeal to the Viennese’ sense of nostalgia, and aimed to circumvent their inherent reluctance to choosing international corporate giants over established local traditions. Within the following six years, Starbucks expanded to meanwhile eleven stores in the city alone – a thorn in the flesh of any authentic Viennese who, by nature, hates Starbucks for endangering an adorned tradition. The silent war even escalated into vandalism in January 2008, when an anonymous globalization-hardliner shattered all the windows of a Viennese Starbucks bar.

However, I would argue that the Viennese have nothing to worry about: Despite the fact that the fast-food coffee chain has accomplished a growth exponentially faster than that of the first coffeehouses in the late 17th century – i.e. opening eleven cafés in six rather than 30 years – Starbucks is not successful. Upon opening in 2002, the company announced their plan to open one new store in Vienna every month – a business objective that was clearly not met. In Vienna, Starbucks is still struggling, and seems to be losing the battle. Passing by their store on Kärntnerstrasse, and peaking through the massive glass windows, I realize that most costumers inside do not appear to be locals - almost everybody who comes out grasping one of the iconic paper cups speaks English. This lack of success does not come as a surprise however, given that the traditional Viennese Kaffeehaus has already once survived a substantial crisis when in the 1950’s a phenomenon called the Kaffeehaussterben or "coffee house death" took place: Due to symptoms of modernization, such as television and the import of trendy espresso bars, many cafes were forced to close. But others managed to survive, and are now - almost 60 years later - packed with people and are as successful as ever. A similar phenomenon seems to be taking place today, when the century-old tradition takes on the fight against globalization. It almost seems as if Viennese Kaffehäuser are succeeding in something that so far only fast-food giant McDonalds has managed to do: standing up to Starbucks like the city of Vienna stood up to and finally defeated the Turks.

Although both Hawelka and Starbucks offer the same product, namely coffee, there are differences so substantial that they seem to have nothing in common at all: Starbucks has the world’s best blends of high quality, triple-roasted, fair trade coffee; professionally prepared by specially educated "baristas"; packaged in recyclable, environmentally friendly and very convenient "to-go" cups. They offer personalized fast-food coffee, with so many choices they require their own lingo to order: grande soy chai no-foam lattes, triple tall no-whip skim macchiatos, venti decaf vanilla-bean low-fat with-cream frapuccinos. Not to mention triple-chocolate-frosted brownies, banana oatmeal cinnamon muffins, New York cheesecakes, Snickers tarts, Danish rolls, bagels, donuts, and after-coffee mints. You can buy anything from coffee beans to merchandise; CDs and mugs and baseball hats: A true coffee megastore and consumerism at its best. And then there is Hawelka. Hawelka has coffee: Tall or small, strong or weak, with milk or without. And if you wish, you may accompany your drink with a piece of fresh apple strudel, made by their pastry chef out of home-grown apples from the garden. The true Viennese seem to prefer such simplicity over a flood of choice.

"It’s not just about the coffee," remarks the man sitting at the table next to mine, when I ask why he chose Hawelka over the Starbucks around the corner. "It is about the special atmosphere. I like to sit here, read, chat, or simply relax; it is much more peaceful than any Starbucks could ever be. Viennese Coffeehouses are almost an oasis to me, allowing me to forget and escape the busy bustling on the streets outside. Here, I feel like time has come to a halt, as if I were sitting in a timeless, pre-capitalist living room."

The window-front lights flicker and illume, as day turns to dusk, and the evening breaks in; I pay my bill, and throw on my scarf. An elderly man at a table close to mine gets up, and without saying a word he helps me into my coat.

I thank him, touched by the simple, yet iconic gesture. In the door, I turn around once more – inhaling the smell of fresh roasted coffee beans and smoke – gratefully soaking up the comforting atmosphere and the cozy hum of conversation mixed with the distant chime of spoons on porcelain before I disappear into the rainy autumn streets.

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