Ballad of a Barista

The manager of Prague's first Starbucks is helping to pull the city into the coffeehouse chain's multinational embrace

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

"I've never heard of a r'die before!" confessed Babeta Schneiderová.

The 25-year-old Prague native was stunned to be stumped. The Red Eye, a medium coffee with a shot of espresso, was a lot of caffeine, even for her, she explained.

It was clear that Schneiderová had already filled her caffeine quota for the day.

Her unwavering toothy grin draws customers into what she calls, "the Starbucks experience." Some may sneer at the coffee chain's global aspirations, but for Schneiderová, good customer service is nothing to scoff at.

Schneiderová has been the manager of Starbucks in Prague's historic Malostranské náměstí since the coffee shop opened on January 21st.

In a city where good customer service is a young, tenuous trend, Schneiderová is offering up her smile, patience and linguistic skills to an array of international visitors, many seeking the rarity of coffee-to-go in the Czech capital.

"It's just nice," said Jennifer Rekowski, a 47-year-old English tourist who hadn't thought of why she'd chosen Starbucks as opposed to the café across the street. "I think it's 'cause we have Starbucks at home. It's good coffee."

While tourists might love their no water skim chai teas and extra hot, sugar-free vanilla lattes, many Czech café workers are less than thrilled about customers' expectation of the perfect coffee experience.

In Prague, tourists giving instructions in unapologetic English are often confronted with flustered, sometimes furious waiters who won't complete an order until it is simplified to "just a coffee."

In the city center, Schneiderová is playfully taking orders and tossing cups to colleagues (who share her grin more self-consciously).

She metes out special requests, stretching the obligatory "And what's your first name?" into "So, where are you from?" and often a world of small talk from there.

Service with a snarl
While community with coffee rings nicely in an American's ears, the concept is new to the Czech Republic, where, 18 years after the fall of Communism, customer service lacks an "I'm Lovin' It" approach.

Markéta Rulíková, a native Czech who teaches Media, Culture, at New York University in Prague, explained that when businesses were state-owned under the Communist regime, there was no individual initiative.

This has led to a current state of apathy toward non-local customers who will never return, regardless of service.

"Now there are different motives why people in services don't care," she said. "The reasoning changed. Before nobody cared, because it was state-owned. Today it's because of the tourists that will not be back."

But Schneiderová, who speaks more English than Czech to hundreds of customers a day, 70 percent of whom are tourists, is confident that Czech service is improving.

"It is inexcusable that someone is rude to a customer. It shouldn't happen. People come here for the Starbucks experience."
Babeta Schneiderová
"It did change a lot, because people realized if you want to make money, you have to be nice to people," she said, though Starbucks prevents her from divulging any salary details.

Schneiderová, who has lived in England for the past three years, still sees room for improvement. "We're still really down below the level of other countries, and we need so many other things to be done," she said.

Martin Potůček, a professor of Social Policy and Economy who teaches at several universities, believes that customer service has made inroads in the past 18 years.

"You lived during ... Communism in the shortage economy, where there was success if you get what you really wanted. [Customer] assistants were simply kings, whereas nowadays, of course, the Czech economy is the other way around."

Mark Nessmith, 39, an American who first moved to Prague in 1993, remembers customer service in the years shortly after the fall of communism.

“The biggest problem was... Well, the biggest problem was everything," he said.

He went on to explain the process of dinner: order a beer, wait for a menu, get a beer, still no menu. "If you're lucky and everything came to the table and your order was correct," he said, "you'd have your meal, and you'd want to pay. You wait and wait and wait."

But now, Nessmith insists, the service is nothing like it used to be, and he believes it's due to the world getting smaller.

"Both business owners and people who would work these service jobs, they've been abroad and they know that this service has to improve, because that's what these customers demand," he explained.

Nessmith also attributes the change to the influx of foreign businesses.

"I think that especially back in the day, it really opened Czechs' eyes to how quick things could be done, and how relatively customer-friendly a place could be," he said. "[Multinational chains have] raised the bar for your average café. They've had to get better just to compete with those places."

Mission latte
When Schneiderová found the position of Starbucks manager online, she applied and was employed after four phone interviews. She moved back to the Czech Republic from England on September 28th, and the next day Starbucks flew her to Seattle for training.

She returned able to recite the Starbucks mission statement in both Czech and English -- "to establish Starbucks as the premium purveyor of the finest coffee in the world and to maintain our uncompromising principles as we grow" -- and intent on applying it here in Prague.

While Starbucks is often attacked in its home country by anti-globalization groups, there is no loud Czech voice protesting the multinational corporate trend spreading through Central Europe.

Rulíková explained eager Czech acceptance of the Starbucks mentality, saying, "We are still busy transforming our own society from Communism. We are still at a stage where we appreciate it."

For Schneiderová, Starbucks was a haven for an under-the-drinking-age foreigner working at a summer camp outside Albany, New York with one day off per week.

"We would sit in there on Saturdays -- like eight hours," she said. "It was the only place I was allowed to go!"

Starbucks’ first principle, "maintaining a great working environment," matched her only criteria for a new job back in the Czech Republic.

"No one wants to go to work and just be miserable," she said. "When I saw Starbucks, I knew that's what I wanted to do, and in the Czech Republic [this work environment] is not that typical."

Nicholas Havlik, 21, a manager at the new Starbucks in the Palladium mall, has been working under Schneiderová, while his store is temporarily closed.

He agrees with her outlook, but added that "service with a smile" can sometimes strain even the most devoted server.

"Every two hours [employees] need to take a break or just do dishes to smile again," he said. "We know it's so hard for eight hours to smile and to speak with customers."

Still, he insists, "This is new, but we like it. All of us like it."

Kristin Parpel, who's lived in Prague from 1993 to 1998 and then from 2003 to the present, is appalled with the average Czech customer service and says that if she ever left this country again, this would be the reason why.

Parpel named countless examples of waiters returning smiles with blank stares and checkout women at Tesco expecting three-handed house moms to pay, bag, and collect change before they look up.

She admires the new Starbucks approach, regardless of its daunting effect on baristas and locals.

"[The Czechs] probably think it's bizarre, and they probably think it's fake," she said of the Starbucks way. "My view on it is I don't care. It's pleasant."

Havlik admits that Czech customers are a tough audience that appreciates the Starbucks mentality in their own way.

"We have one customer -- almost every day he came. Every day he looks like he hates us. Every day he wants grande Americano with no room for milk and every day he says like, 'No I don't want to tell you my name, because I hate you.' But every day he comes."

Schneiderová knows him as "Mr. Pissed Off," the name he told her when ordering his coffee the first morning he came.

Schneiderová, who has been working an average of 100 hours a week and saw her mother more often when she lived in England, is desperate to make this Starbucks perfect.

When she heard about a barista giving "attitude" because a customer didn't have the correct change, her smile shifted from one of pride to disbelief.

"It's inexcusable that someone is rude to a customer," she said while shaking her head. "It shouldn't happen. People come for the Starbucks experience."

Even with all this pressure, Havlik has still only seen Schneiderová flustered once, when the store ran out of coffee beans. She was the one to decide to go to the Palladium Starbucks to borrow theirs.

Schneiderová and her personal quest for perfect customer relations represents a new generation of Czechs, more familiar with Sex and the City stars sipping their lattes than the corner store being out of toilet paper before the fall of Communism.

Rulíková sees even more potential for the Czech service industry's future, as the concept of Westernization becomes irrelevant.

She said, "Some of the [Western] ideas are going to be implemented by the Czech businesses, and potentially the very idea of Western products being better is going to disappear."

Cecilia Turner is in her third year at New York University, studying journalism and politics. She is from Lenox, Massachusetts.

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