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Starbucks vs traditional Vienna coffeehouse


Bitter Rivals or Unlikely Allies?


Erwin Wagner, maitre at Vienna's Schwarzenberg Cafe is pictured on October 10, in Vienna. With a 300-year coffeehouse tradition, Vienna has started attracting US-style chains in the past few years and contrary to all expectations, the two would-be rivals seem to be co-existing just fine.



With a 300-year coffeehouse tradition, Vienna has started attracting US-style chains in the past few years and contrary to all expectations, the two would-be rivals seem to be co-existing just fine.


The Austrian capital, with a population of 1.68 million, has over 2,690 coffee establishments, according to the Austrian federal economic chamber: from grand old cafes to tiny neighbourhood businesses and trendy downtown coffee bars.


There, Austrians while away the hours with a cup of Melange or Grosser Brauner, usually served on a small tray with a glass of water, while reading the newspaper or catching up with friends.


And yet, Starbucks made a successful entrance in 2001 and has just opened its 13th branch, while Indian chain Coffee Day launched its first foreign ventures in Vienna.


"It enriches the market, so every consumer can now go to the cafe of his choice, whether it's a traditional Viennese coffeehouse, a stylish, modern one or a Starbucks," says the US chain's Austrian PR manager, Reinhard Lischka.


Adds Cristina McDaniel, Starbucks's regional marketing director: "Many thought we were here to sell bad coffee at a high price but we gained respect in terms of the quality of our coffee and the products we have."


The menu even offers typical Viennese Melange, a coffee with hot milk and foam: "We want to be seen and accepted as local too."


Initial fears that the big US chain would take over the market and spell the end of a Viennese tradition seem to have disappeared and take-away coffeeplaces now live peacefully alongside their older counterparts.


The legendary Cafe Hawelka, which has seen no major changes or repairs since 1945, still attracts loyal regulars and tourists, precisely because of its smoky atmosphere.


Stepping into the dimly-lit cafe, with its mismatched furniture, tiny round tables and creaky wooden chairs, where limited space means complete strangers are customarily seated together, one seems to enter another era, when artists and writers met here to discuss philosophy and art.


Leopold Hawelka, 97, has run the cafe since 1945 and still likes to sit by the door and greet his customers, like in the old days.


"It's a bit like a living room and we want to keep it this way," says his grandson Amir, who helps run the business with his father and brother.


"Tourists don't come to Vienna to go to Starbucks, they want to experience a typical Viennese coffeehouse, see what kind of people come here," he adds, noting the authenticity of the place, with its old pictures and faded posters on the walls.


"The chairs here are 100 years old, the furnishings are 100 years old and my granddad too will soon be 100 years old," Amir notes with a laugh.


If anything, the arrival of Starbucks "makes Viennese coffeehouses even more special, because you can see the difference," he adds.


Guenter Ferstl, head of the economic chamber's coffeehouse group, agrees.


"The concept, the taste of the coffee are completely different, so I don't see any risk for traditional Viennese establishments," he notes.


While Starbucks offers customised drinks, free wireless Internet and New York cheesecake, traditional establishments like the elegant Cafe Schwarzenberg take pride in their international newspaper selection, fresh Gugelhupf cake and wine menu, while waiters in bowties waltz about the marble floor.


Each has its own language, with frappuccinos and chai tea lattes on the one hand, and on the other: Verlaengerter ("extended" espresso), Einspaenner (espresso with whipped cream), Kaffee verkehrt (literally "reversed": lots of milk, little coffee) and other Maria Theresia, Biedermeier or Fiaker options with shots of liquor and schnaps.


Where Starbucks succeeded was in making coffee popular among youngsters and in introducing the take-away option, which has now caught on so that bakery chains are also selling coffee in a paper cup.


And these innovations are good for business, says Ferstl.


"Young people are being introduced to coffee drinks at Starbucks, who will one day end up sitting in a Viennese coffeehouse, that's how I see it: Starbucks is grooming young people to drink coffee," he chuckles.


"There are no more negative comments against Starbucks from the industry, they've seen now: ok, it's another provider but it's not this big bad American company they thought it was," adds Lischka.


But Hawelka jokes: "It's still a good discussion topic."


"And discussions are crucial in a coffeehouse!"

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