The Last Latte

Another Starbucks closes, leaving only nine American-style coffee houses that came to town with flare eight years ago

The Starbucks on Bognergasse ground its last bean on Jan. 27 | Photo: Andy Millard

As if it were an international conference of young international students, a Starbucks in the first district is full on it last day of business. A few older customers linger about, obviously feeling out of place. Amid the silent sea of lounging students, many whom are speaking English, I too ask myself, “What am I doing here?” This is Vienna, after all, the Kaffeehaus capital of the world.

The Starbucks at Bognergasse 4, ground its last coffee bean on Jan. 23, leaving Vienna now with only nine of American-style coffee houses that had come to town with such flare eight years ago. It had seemed a strange move from the start back in 2001, bringing a commercial coffee house chain on the U.S. model to Vienna. Like bringing a knife to a gunfight, it never seemed, well, a thoroughly thought out move. In fact, of course, Starbucks was not directly aiming to bring down the Viennese coffee culture — more like, take advantage of it. The company that had built a thriving business creating public living rooms where customers, had been opening venues abroad for years. The first Starbucks to open outside of the U.S. and Canada was in the mid-‘90s. Today Starbucks abroad constitute around a third of their total number of stores. In 2009, the company announced it would be opening some 900 new coffee houses outside of the U.S., perhaps a response to the 900 that have been shut down within the States. Keeping the cosmos in a state of balance; a little joke at the shareholders expense from the big guy in the clouds.  One thing is for sure, if the day ever comes that Vienna’s last Starbucks closes, the army of young students now seated in the irresistibly comfy seats will definitely be displeased. They have already displayed their allegiance to Starbucks, arriving in crowds to bid farewell to the coffee house underdog, at least of Vienna. Who could blame them, they appear extremely relaxed, leaning back, enjoying their preferred coffee one last time.

Starbucks has been opening shops across Austria since December of 2001; the first was opened on Kärntnerstraße across from the Staatsoper, on the site of the former Café Scheidl that had been destroyed in Allied bombing in World War II. They would be restoring a coffee house to this historic location, the company promised, and would align themselves with the legendary Viennese coffee house tradition, of whose power they seemed at least dimly aware. They announced their intention of opening one new location a month. In the subsequent four years, the company opened 11 new shops and closed two, according to management.  And today, they are still struggling, with only moderate turnover at most locations, unpleasant encounters with organic food pamphleteers, and a losing battle against smoking, that has led to a first smoker-friendly location in Millenium City. Still, they are persisting in this city of coffee houses, and have some loyal customers, particular among tourists and international students.

It appears a tranquilizing effect engulfs the Starbucks patrons. Even on the last day of one of this Starbucks, people are deep in relaxed conversation, instead of moping at the loss of their possible hangout point. The thick aroma of my cappuccino reminds me that Starbucks is just another coffee house, try to selling it’s products to the coffee-loving Viennese. Possibly a long awaited dream of Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks.

It’s not that all the news is bad. Worldwide, site numbers in some places have been growing, and the chain introduced a new instant coffee called Via in late September. But they have also been declining. Before the Starbucks on Bognergasse shut for good, two other shops closed in March and April of 2009 following with the statement that no more of Austria’s shops will be affected by the “world-wide savings plan.” Starbucks had begun 2009 intending to open one shop every month for five years in Austria, ending in 60 stores all together.  The financial crisis and other factors had brought these expansion plans to an abrupt halt. According to the Wall Street Journal’s online edition, Starbucks executives have systematically closed 1000 sites across the world to “combat the slowdown in customer traffic at its stores.” Other methods include “[overhauling] its food menu, [unveiling] smoothies and other new drinks.”

But how is this race to get on the good side of customers affecting the coffee culture of Vienna? Local, long-time Kaffeehaus aficionados don’t even flinch at the idea that Starbucks might pose a “threat.”  People who really appreciate fine coffee and are accustomed to the graces of a three-centuries-old and perfected tradition, they say, are unlikely to enter a Starbucks.  Others aren’t so sure, watching with disappointment as tourists from around the world rush straight to a Starbucks for their fix of caffeine, sugar and steamed milk. Is it ignorance of the local tradition? Is it the comfort of familiarity? Or maybe the smoke free locale? Perhaps some of each, says food writer Marlies Burkhard. The famous cafés such as Kaffee Alt Wien, Café Central, or Cafe Hawelka, have nothing to worry about. To tourists they are a must see and to locals they are a natural choice.  “It’s the smaller lesser known cafés who should worry, if there even is a reason to worry,” she says. “Newcomers catch on quickly. I doubt the tradition is at risk.”     Whether Starbucks will ever be accepted into the prestigious Kaffeehaus culture of Vienna or not, they should at least not be underestimated. They may not be Viennese cafés, but they brings a new and to many, frankly appealling alternative café style. After all their initial mission was to spark a coffee house culture in America, not Vienna.  To have ended up influencing the tastes of local Viennese students and tourists, one must admit, is something of an accomplishment.

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