Croatia Q&A: Why are there no Starbucks in Croatia?

We ask the important questions about city life in Croatia. This week, as the coffee chain enters Italy, we look at how Croatia coffee culture defies its global influence
© Engin_Akyurt
By Marc Rowlands |
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The coffee chain of Starbucks is about as ubiquitous as a brand can get. Founded in Seattle in 1971, it has more than 30,000 stores worldwide, selling large servings of coffee in cardboard cups to office workers on breaks, city walkers on the go, students on their way to class or parents on the school run. It is almost as omnipresent in European cities as McDonalds and within the last week, Starbucks opened their first outlet in the great coffee-loving nation of Italy. Its grandiose new Starbucks in Milan is housed inside the historic and beautiful old post office building in Palazzo delle Poste, just moments walk from some of the city's most iconic attractions, Duomo di Milano, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the world-famous opera house Teatro alla Scala.

Being such a new concern, only time will tell if Starbucks Milan will be yet another of the brand's big successes. But, Starbucks are no dummies. You can bet they've done their research. From its appearance, you can tell no small amount of money has gone into their new Milan store. They must feel confident they've done things right. This poses the question, why haven't this most thoughtful, far-reaching and ambitious of brands put their considerations to Croatia yet? Why is there not one single Starbucks outlet within the country?

Well, just because Starbucks doesn't exist in Croatia, doesn't mean that the brand hasn't considered opening a store here. Rumours of an outlet opening in capital city Zagreb stretch back almost a decade, although, like the medicinal benefits of drinking slivovice (plum rakija) - an irrefutable, uncontested truth throughout the Balkans - there actually seems to be a lack evidence to back up the claim.

Perhaps Starbucks have been here, visiting like extraterrestrials, unseen in the dead of night and departed, after briefly mulling over Croatian coffee culture, thinking 'Nah, don't reckon we'll bother. There's absolutely no way we can make money here.' Perhaps Croatia is too much of a gamble for the brand? But, it's not like they haven't gambled before. And won.

England; that great tea-loving nation. Tea is as commonplace in England as water. Inhabitants of that island are expected to drink at least five cups a day. Indeed, refusal of a cup of tea when visiting someone's house, even if you've already reached your five cup quota (easily manageable by midday) usually leads to near apoplectic shock from your host and is almost grounds for your immediate psychological evaluation. Yet, Starbucks ventured there, taking their oh-so continental alternative to the islanders. And they succeeded.

But, of course, Croatia is not England. Starbucks lends itself well to how most people in the UK already exist. The English can often be seen on their lunch breaks, rushing back to their desks with a sandwich (sometimes it hangs from their mouths, half eaten, disappearing even before they've got back in the lift to their office). They do the same with their coffees. The gallons of coffee contained in a cardboard Starbucks bucket can be 'enjoyed' on the go. And it can last all afternoon, providing the caffeine injection needed to overcome that day's heavy workload. The functional formula will be repeated tomorrow. And the day after that.

Plus, the weather in England is rubbish. Apart from not having the time to spend drinking coffee at the store, English people don't have the weather to sit outside on the terrace and enjoy it. But, meteorological assistance aside, to introduce coffee culture into conservative English habits is no small feat for coffee chains like Starbucks. It speaks volumes that they consider it an easier task than changing Croatian coffee culture.

Croatian coffee culture certainly doesn't fit neatly into the business model of how Starbucks operates in other countries. Can you imagine a Croatian coffee drinker taking a coffee to go? Or working whilst drinking coffee? Or drinking coffee as a solitary pursuit? There's more chance of Croatia's next ruling party being decided by a knockout disco dancing competition. It's absolutely unthinkable.

Croatians rarely drink coffee alone. And they never take coffee to go. Coffee is as much a part of Croatia's social fabric as your 100 percent required attendance at your cousin's cousin's wedding. The only people in Croatia whose social lives do not revolve around going for coffee are the deceased. You go for coffee for a business meeting, you go for coffee when you're catching up with your friend or family. And you take your time. One small cup of coffee in Croatia can easily last two or three hours. That's no joke. 

In Croatia, so ingrained is their own particular coffee culture that it is an unbreakable bond between the existing cafés and the population. Here, there are rules Starbucks would never understand. Firstly, most Croatians have their own café bar. That's not to say they actually own the place, but they usually do have a regular spot where they like to go. Their loyalty towards these establishments is sometimes greater than that which they hold for their siblings (in particular if under duress of land disputes). Any suggestion that a coffee should take place away from the usual meeting place could likely be met with negative responses ranging from derision to cancellation.

Secondly, you can never interrupt a Croatian couple who are having coffee. In the UK, on the one sunny afternoon of the year when you see your friends sitting outside Starbucks, it would be positively unusual for you not to be invited to join them at the table. Under no circumstances should you expect that to happen in Croatia. Joining two friends drinking coffee at a table in Croatia, without prior arrangement, would be considered as rude as if you had intercourse with one of their spouses in front of them on the terrace. The coffee drinker might be your long-lost brother, not seen since he was taken from your tearful mother's arms some 20 years ago, but it would still not be acceptable to interrupt him and his friend for more than the time it takes to say 'Hi, I'll call you!' and certainly not attempt to join them. They are 'on coffee'. And to je to (that is that).

Thirdly, it is difficult to imagine that Starbucks could get to grips with that fact that, in Croatia, coffee does not mean coffee. In Croatia, the phrase 'to go on coffee' can mean to engage in so many hours of endless gossip that it would require some manner of apology in the afterlife. Also, 'to go on coffee' can mean to smoke cigarettes in an unnecessarily frequent manner. Further still, 'to go on coffee' can often involve no coffee at all. It sometimes involves only beer. Or beer and cigarettes. Good luck figuring those last two out, unlicensed, non-smoking coffee shop brands.

It's doubtful that Starbucks could ever get to grips with Croatia's such distinct rules for coffee culture. And, perhaps there's little point in them trying to turn a profit on a terrace that has been full of people all day, but which has only sold twenty small cups of coffee? It's also doubtful that Croatians would be swayed from their regular choice of expresso or kava sa mlijekom (coffee with milk) by the myriad of confusing options offered by Starbucks to its customers, such as double chocca mocca with Pekanese autumnal syrup, essence of giraffe and skimmed, vanilla-infused, vegan seaweed milk. And good luck to any foreign born barista trying to spell Vjekoslav or Hrvoje on the side of a cup after meeting a customer so named for the first time.

There could be a multitude of reasons why Starbucks have not ventured yet into the Croatian territory. Perhaps their move into Italy should be taken as an indicator of their ambitions in this coffee-loving corner of Europe? One thing's for certain, if they do consider coming to Croatia, it won't be like their arrival in England. In Croatia they won't be introducing a coffee culture, they'll be learning one.

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