Opinion | The Melange Mentality

When Starbucks came to Vienna some 15 years ago – opening 21 shops in prime locations – many Viennese braced themselves for the graceless world of American consumerism. They need not have feared

Within a few years, the company was in retreat to the malls and train stations where it is most at home.

Now even the local knockoffs are reverting to type. The Coffeeshop Company – a shameless Starbucks clone run by the Austrian Schärf coffee dynasty – is remodeling its Alser Straße shop back to a more traditional Kaffeehaus, with comfy, ample seating and table service, instead of a hurried counter to grab your oversized paper cup of latte.

That, along with the high-profile closing of Starbucks’ flagship store on Kärntner Straße last year – met with Schadenfreude from most locals – can be taken as further evidence that fast food does not fly in the capital of Gemütlichkeit.

Indeed, the list of American franchises that have failed in Austria is long: Dunkin’ Donuts, Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut have all tanked; KFC, Burger King and Subway barely have a beachhead; and McDonald’s, the sole success story, has bent over backwards to adapt, and is still eyed with suspicion after 40 years.

Austrians may rarely display overt national pride (except at ski races), but they are fiercely patriotic about their way of life – and having a leisurely, sit-down meal is part of that.

The same goes for coffeehouse culture – an unapologetic sense of leisure that would pass for loitering across the pond: Reading the paper, playing chess and chatting for hours over a single cup of coffee is practically enshrined as a constitutional right in the country that introduced the beverage to the West.

Perhaps that’s not economical, but it may have more to do with a consistently high quality of life than many of the tangibles considered in the Mercer rankings.

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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