Just ‘cause it’s American, Europeans ain’t buyin’ it

Bottle of olive oil

Listen to Brenda tell the story

Americans are known for their sometimes unwarranted optimism, and American companies are no exception. As capitalist and shrewd as they are when skimping on their employees’ salaries, there is a certain wide-eyed naiveté to some of their actions when trying to roll out the exact same franchise in a completely different country.

I thought of this when reading that Starbucks has just introduced Oleato in Italy, an odd-sounding blend of coffee and olive oil. To me, that sounds about as appealing as a mixture of sorbet and shredded cheese, but hey, to each their own.

But Italians already have a well-established, ritualized coffee tradition of their own: cappuccino in the morning, espresso after lunch. The coffee is brewed by a giant metal monstrosity, operated by a friendly Italian who smiles at you before summarily slamming the metal portafilter over the edge of a bin to empty out the grounds before refilling it. This ear-shattering noise will wake you up if the espresso doesn’t do the job. After completing the espresso procedure to the background music of hissing steam, the friendly man ceremoniously slides a tiny cup of black liquid across the bar at you, announcing this grand finale with “Prego!”

I’m just not sure Starbucks can match that. After all, Americans think “Prego” is a spaghetti sauce brand which it is, to be fair. Is all that ritualized coffee-brewing behavior endemic solely to Italians? And does it even matter?

Domino’s Pizza, in a fit of foolishness, also tried to sell an Italian product to the Italians. They did so poorly selling pizza in the land that invented it that they were forced to cut their losses and pull out of Italy entirely. Maybe they never heard that joke about the salesman who tried to sell a refrigerator to the Inuit.

Walmart enjoyed a brief stint in Germany, too, although “enjoyed” might be the wrong word here. The Germans most decidedly did not go for it. The company failed and had to pull out in 1997.

If they had done their homework, they would have realized that doing things like making employees chant “Walmart! Walmart!” in a country that suffered at the hands of fascism would not be popular. The same goes for requiring employees to spy on each other, in the style of the former East German secret police, the Stasi. As if these things weren’t bad enough, Walmart employees are required to smile and greet customers and smile again as they bid them goodbye. Germans like feigned friendliness about as much as they like chanting. They don’t even like real friendliness.  

Starbucks, on the other hand, has managed to make large dents into traditional café culture, at least in Munich. One after another, old-fashioned cafés disappear, replaced by a shiny, sterile Starbucks. I am sorely tempted to scream and shout at the evils of capitalism, but people vote with their wallets. If the old café had been flourishing, it wouldn’t have been pushed aside.

And the way people congregate in Starbucks, chatting or working on their laptops in groups, is perhaps just an upgraded version of behavior typical of the original Viennese café tradition, where 19th-century intellectuals gathered to discuss the issues of the day. Except instead of a famous author or poet, it’s Andreas the marketing consultant typing up a polite yet irate email to his slacking colleague.

McDonald’s success is founded on standardization, which was drilled into me quite successfully during my teenage years working there. This means a limited number of products, served the same way in every restaurant.

But there’s an exception to every rule, including for fast-food restaurants.

McDonald’s may have established its concept successfully in Europe, but a bit of Europe has rubbed off on McDonald’s in the form of the McCafé. These cafés are physically sectioned off from the main dining hall and are furnished to look a bit cozier than the rest of the restaurant. The chairs and tables are still food court style, attached to the floor but rank a few notches higher on the comfy scale. And they, too, serve coffee and excellent cake, just like in a European café.

Domino’s flopped in Italy and McDonald’s adapted to Europe. Let’s wait and see what the Italians make of Starbucks’ olive oil coffee.

Written by Brenda Arnold and read by Natalie Gruenler

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