Caramel Macchiato Conquers Mitteleuropa

Say hello to a new brand of Central European excess: Starbucks has arrived in Warsaw.

Starbucks has arrived in Warsaw

After the new Starbucks opened, I walked by the place a couple of times just to see the crowds. Strategically located midway between the university and the stock exchange, the world’s best-known coffee franchise immediately attracted a well-heeled clientele. Lines twisted around the shop and out the door. Up and down the street, bluejeaned students and dark-suited stockbrokers carried their white paper cups with pride, the famous green labels facing outward.

Yes, Starbucks has come to Warsaw, Poland, at last. The brand might be out of fashion in the United States; the company might be losing money. Its share price might be about one-third of what it was at its peak in 2006; it might have diluted its once-exclusive image through massive overexpansion. (After drinking the watery brew served by a sullen barista in a Starbucks at the Salt Lake City airport recently, I mentally cheered the chain’s decision to shut 600 U.S. shops.) But here in Central Europe, the arrival of Starbucks has been greeted with undiluted enthusiasm—so much enthusiasm, in fact, that the phenomenon seems, to me, to require further explanation. Starbucks knockoffs have been available in most Polish cities for the better part of a decade. Older cafes, the kind that serve coffee in china cups, have been available for the better part of three centuries. Looking at that line of twentysomethings, all waiting patiently for the chance to pay twice as much for a cup of coffee as they would across the street, one had to wonder what was up.

The answer lies partly in the magic of brand names and status symbols—but also in the psychology of the post-Communist world. The arrival of McDonald’s in Warsaw in the early 1990s signified for many the arrival of capitalism in Poland. The arrival of Starbucks in Warsaw, as in Prague, Czech Republic (it got there last year), * and possibly Budapest, Hungary (where it’s been promised for years), signifies the entry of Central Europe not just into the capitalist world but into the world of 21st-century-style prosperity.

It also signifies a very real set of economic and psychological changes. After half a century of being told by their Communist governments that the future lay in factory jobs and mining (it didn’t), upwardly mobile Poles now aspire to different sorts of jobs: in fashion, in courtrooms, in computers; jobs that require hardworking employees to drink their coffee on the run; jobs that also leave them with enough leisure to hang out at Starbucks, doing deals. Many already have such jobs. A couple of summers ago, I ran into an American who was scouting for Starbucks on a Polish beach. He was trawling Baltic summer resorts, trying to work out whether there were enough people around willing to pay $3 for a cup of coffee. Obviously, someone has decided that there are.

And if you haven’t quite attained that financial latitude, you can at least pretend you have at Starbucks. If you are still a student, or if you are just starting out in stockbrokering or fashion, you might not have the money to buy designer shoes or a new car. You are probably more likely to indulge in small luxuries, such as overpriced coffee. (A Hungarian friend reports that business is booming in Budapest beauty salons for the same reason.)

By the same token, when you don’t have an especially nice place to live—if you live, for instance, in a dormitory—you might well prefer to spend your afternoons in an attractive coffeehouse. And here is where the Starbucks ethos meshes so well with the cultural history of central Europe: At the height of their popularity, the coffeehouses of 19th-century Vienna, Warsaw, or Budapest were famously frequented by people who didn’t live in particularly lush apartments and therefore preferred to spend their time in rooms decorated like the salons of the upper classes. Hence the association of coffeehouses with poets, literati, revolutionaries, and other assorted riffraff. Hence the attraction for students today. As for the stockbrokers, they are simply back where they belong: Some of the world’s stock exchanges got their start in coffeehouses, since merchants and traders were once outsiders, too.

In fact, with the opening of a Warsaw Starbucks, one might even say the coffeehouse has reached the end of a certain cycle. Born in Central Europe, where it embodied an ideal of luxury and a set of aspirations; landing in Seattle, where it came to embody a different kind of luxury and a different set of aspirations; now imported back to Central Europe, aesthetically transformed but essentially fulfilling the same function, the coffeehouse appears to have come full circle at last.

Correction, May 11, 2009: This article originally stated that Starbucks opened in Prague a few months ago. In fact, it opened in early 2008. (Return to the corrected sentence.)