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Conquering the World, One Frappuccino at a Time

Andreas Tzortzis
May 25, 2002

The first Starbucks in Berlin might as well have been the first Starbucks in Seattle or Singapore for all it's originality and local flair. But it's best not to tinker on the path to global domination.

From tall mocha to grande latte, Starbucks is the same everywhere you go, from Seattle to BerlinImage: AP

The tall mocha sat unclaimed for what seemed like hours.

The Barista (an overly fancy word for the person who makes coffee and takes your money) called and called. But no body came.

The coffee buyers and Starbucks rookies stared dumbly at their receipts. Was that a tall macchiato or a grande latte with peppermint syrup that I ordered? Why isn’t anybody picking that up? Is that mine? Did that caramel macchiato really cost €4.30?

The Baristas weren’t on top of things either. Chaos was the rule of the morning behind the counter as the first-ever Starbucks opened its doors in the very hip, very upwardly mobile heart of Germany's capital city.

Press had been invited to the location on Rosenthaler Strasse in Berlin’s Mitte district Friday night to celebrate the opening with execs from Starbucks and their German partner KarstadtQuelle. Outside, the next day’s potential customers gazed through the coffee shop’s large street-front windows, getting a peek of the couch and wooden table interior Americans, Asians and Brits have grown accustomed to over the past decade.

After launching more than 5,000 stores in Asia and the rest of Europe, the world’s largest coffee chain finally decided it was time to conquer the "kaffee and kuchen" coffee culture of Germany.

Starbucks Coffee in Berlin Kaffeehaus Außen
First Starbucks coffee house in Germany at the "Hackesche Höfe" in BerlinImage: AP

An American at home abroad

There was a fat line when I rolled into Starbucks just before midday Saturday. After all, this was one of America’s greatest exports in a neighborhood filled with hip Berliners who cherished their slices of Americana – even if they didn’t always admit to it.

Starbucks coffee house imitators had already opened shop near Rosenthaler Strasse and other streets in the Mitte district in the past few years. Their counters had a steady stream of young professionals grabbing a latte to go – complete with the cardboard sleeve that guarded against cup burn and potential lawsuits.

Now those same experienced professionals were lined up at the Starbucks counter, gazing at the myriad of choices a single cup of coffee offered. Brochures explaining each drink were available and the green-aproned, black polo shirted Starbucks crew was always helpful with suggestions.

I ordered a caramel macchiato for the first time in my life. It was the kind of drink my friends and I always made fun of back in San Francisco. Macchiato? Syrup shots? Just give me a damn cup of coffee.

Besides, our loyalty, and we liked to think, the rest of the Bay Area’s, was to Starbucks' competitor Peets Coffee. You could paint entire houses and pave sidewalks on the jolt a large mocca from Peets gave you, your hands shivering like a junkie’s all the way.

When a Starbucks opened up down the street from our beloved Peets, we booed and hissed.

So artificial, so cold, so, so ... green.

I moved away from all of that when I came to Berlin. Sitting down to a civilized cup of coffee was charming and European, and the quality was fantastic. But the Germans still had a lot to learn when it came to coffee on the go. The small plastic cups burned the hands and the taste left something, well, a lot, to be desired.

Now Starbucks is here, ostensibly to teach them that. The little cups with the Green mermaid logo will pepper trash cans throughout Berlin in the coming year, when as many as five more franchises open up in the capital city.

But the one on Rosenthaler Strasse will be the test run.

Starbucks Coffee House in Berlin Innenansicht
Inside view of the first Starbucks coffee house in GermanyImage: AP

To their credit, the Starbucks people have done nothing to make the first German chain any more special. The couches are the same shades of brown and burgundy as in Okinawa and Fort Lauderdale. The loudspeakers loop out old jazz and light soul jams (Aretha Franklin, James Brown, nothing too risky, of course). The walls are covered with tinted or black and white photographs of street scapes or architecture – none of which are distinctly German.

Seattle style sells

Hell, Starbucks is conquering the rest of the world without looking any different than the inagural store in Seattle. Why should Germany be any different?

"I like it because it’s the same everywhere," said Alexandra Pioretzki, a 24-year-old student from Nuremberg who still has fond memories of her first Starbucks cappucino on the banks of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Since then, she’s visited Starbucks coffee bars in Switzerland and Asia. "For me, it’s a bit of this world feeling," she said. "It’s home, but in the sense that my home is the world."

The franchise will have no problem attracting globe-trotting young Germans like Pioretzki. It’s the older generations, who are used to just getting a damn cup of coffee, that will be harder to pull in.

For now, the Rosenthaler shop doesn’t need to worry about all that. The comfy chairs and wooden tables on both levels of the two-level cafe were packed Saturday.

Many will come back again and again, and out-of-towners, like Pioretski, will eagerly await the opening of franchises in their home town.

Me, I’m holding out for Peets.