A Starbucks State of Mind

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 inside the shop and out the door. Up and down the street, blue-jeaned students and dark-suited stockbrokers carried their white paper cups with pride, the famous green label facing outward.

Yes, Starbucks has come to Warsaw at last. The brand might be out of fashion in the States; the company might be losing money. Its shares might be worth a third of what they were at their 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 down 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 require further explanation.

This is particularly true since Starbucks knock-offs have been available in most Polish cities for the better part of a decade. Older cafes, the kind where you drink coffee out of china cups, have been available for the better part of three centuries. Looking at that line of 20-somethings, all waiting patiently for the chance to pay twice as much for a cup of coffee as they would pay 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 (a few months ago) and possibly Budapest (where it’s been promised for years) — signifies the entry of Central Europe not just into the capitalist world but also into the world of 21st-century-style prosperity.

It signifies, also, 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, courtrooms and 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 doing some 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.

But even if you haven’t quite attained that financial latitude, you can pretend to have done so at Starbucks. If you are still a student, or if you are just starting out in the stock market or fashion, you might not yet have the money to buy designer shoes or a new car. You are therefore 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 this 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 and Budapest were famously frequented by people who didn’t live in particularly lush apartments and thus 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: Many 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 we have reached the end of a cycle. Born in Central Europe, where it embodied an ideal of luxury and a certain set of aspirations; landing in Seattle, where it came to embody a different kind of luxury and a different set of aspirations; now reimported to Central Europe, aesthetically transformed but essentially fulfilling the same function, the coffeehouse appears to have come full circle, at last.

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