Poland: Starbucks conquers again

Hilary Heuler
American-style cafes are a sign of prosperity in Warsaw.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

WARSAW – For coffee connoisseurs weary of the ubiquitous Starbucks experience, it might come as a surprise to see the lines snaking out the door of the company’s new cafe in Poland. In contrast to the United States, where Starbucks is no longer a novelty, the signature green logo has been met with an enthusiastic welcome in Warsaw.

It seems incredible that, in a country where the average yearly wage is just $17,000, people would be so eager to pay the equivalent of $4 for a cup of coffee (a grande latte here costs 11.50 zloty, about $3.83). But to many in formerly communist Poland, Starbucks symbolizes the attainment of a Western brand of prosperity, where sipping an imported brew is one of the first signs of having made it.

“After 1989 we fell in love with American stuff,” says Damian Strzes­zewski, a sociologist at Warsaw University. “Many people move to Warsaw from poorer places, and a cup from Starbucks is a relatively cheap way to mark their social status. The coffee is awful compared with a lot of traditional cafes, but it’s not about coffee.”

Local companies have been imitating Starbucks for nearly a decade, doing their part to build the Western coffee bar into a status symbol. Polish brand Coffee Heaven advertises its specials in English, suggesting that by stepping into the shop, customers are buying into a piece of America. The model seems to work; on the street where Starbucks stands, there are six other cafes almost exactly like it.

It remains to be seen whether the crowds here will continue to flock to Starbucks. But considering Poland’s longstanding love affair with the American cafe, Poles will probably be sipping Frappuccinos for a long time to come.

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