A comparison of the coffee and café culture of Eugene, Oregon; Vienna, Austria; and Segovia, Spain. The European habit of lingering over your beverage is contrasted with the American preference for a grab-and-go cup.
Words by Erin Coates, Illustration by Miró Merrill
The ringing of the alarm clock jolts Kaitlyn Sledge awake. The time flashes 5:15 and she quickly rolls out of bed. The tall barista pulls her long brown hair up into a bun, slips earrings into each ear, and hurries out the door to make it on time for work.
Sledge usually arrives at Vector’s Espresso in North Eugene around six o’clock in the morning. She begins her day by making sure everything in the shop is clean and ready. Moving around the shop, she places the tables and chairs in their proper positions before retreating behind the counter. She listens to the espresso machine roar to life as she prepares cups of ice water for her customers who will begin to arrive around 6:30 starting with the Morning Crew.
Dave is part of the Morning Crew, a group of five who come in six days a week. Sledge happily chats with them as the sun rises over the little café. She asks about their families, and they check up on her schoolwork. If she is running late, Dave will grab the newspaper from out front.
When Sledge began working at Vector’s, the regular customers, like Dave, intimidated her.
“All of my other coworkers knew them and knew their drink orders and knew their names, and knew usually when they come in,” Sledge says. “But within a few months of working there, I knew most of the regulars.”
The busy cafés of Vienna, Austria are filled with regular customers as well. In the Café Konditorei Brendendick, people can be seen sipping coffee out of white ceramic cups and talking with a larger man who never seems to lose his smile. George Ges, the grinning waiter with a long blue apron around his waist, has owned the small Viennese café on the corner since 1990. Most of his customers are greeted by name because of their frequent visits and conversations with Ges. According to the jolly man, Viennese people search for the perfect coffee shop and then remain loyal to the business and owner.
Ges says it’s his “nice personality” that keeps his customers coming back. “This is just a local café, so I have 90% regular customers,” he says.
A coffee lover myself, I found myself frequently sitting in this café and talking with Ges. As I enjoy a cup of Wiener Melange, one of the regulars walks out of the quieter room in the back. As he moves toward the door, he exchanges friendly banter in German with Ges before smiling at me and leaving.
“I like to speak to the people and to make them happy. If they find what they like and they want to talk with me, they tell me their problems. I’m a psychiatrist,” he says. Like Ges, Sledge enjoys the different conversations she has with her customers.
“Interactions range from joking and fun to pretty personal and emotional,” Sledge says. “You get to be a part of their lives.”
Eric is one of the customers who Sledge banters with in the morning. With a Dr. John drink — similar to a Spanish café con leche — in his hand, they tease each other and chat about the latest video games and movies. Getting close to regular customers can be extremely emotional.
“A customer was diagnosed with cancer recently, and he’s going through chemo right now,” Sledge says. “My mom went through that a number of years ago, so I relate to him. There are times if he’s in the café during the afternoon and it’s slow, I’ll sit down and talk with him about it.”
Francisco Olmos, a patient man with a bushy mustache across his face, has owned the Pastelería Salón de Té Divas in Segovia, Spain for 31 years. Like Sledge and Ges, Olmos has many regular customers who come by for his coffee, conversation, and sweets.
“I’ve developed lots of good relationships of different kinds,” Olmos says. His café isn’t just popular among the Segovians. He has also made friends with “Americans and other people who come from all over the world.”
Back around the world in Eugene, Vector’s is similar to the cafés Sledge has experienced in both Vienna and Segovia. The endless amount of seating in each café encourages people to stay, relax, and enjoy a cup of coffee and the culture surrounding them.
The grab-and-go coffee places, like Starbucks, are extremely popular in the United States, where people seem to always be in a rush. More sit down cafés are popping up in places like Eugene and Portland for the people who want to slow down and enjoy the traditional coffee experience that is prevalent in Europe. To Sledge, the coffee experience is displayed in how the employees of Vector’s treat their customers. Customer service is important and the baristas make sure to greet each person who walks through the door either by name or with a friendly hello. The coffee is delivered to each table on a little platter with a spoon.
“From the worker’s perspective, if someone is sticking around, we come in and check on them with a ‘Do you want a glass of water or do you want another drink? How’s it going can I get you anything?’ Sledge says. “What we want them to have is a nice place to sit and relax.”
Although Sledge enjoyed her experience in Ges’s Viennese café, she was surprised by the lack of customer service in most of the coffee shops in Europe.
“I felt like the conversation wasn’t there. The common attitude was that of ‘Yeah I’m going to give you your drink, but I don’t really care.’ But then there were definitely places that once they recognized that you were going to keep coming back, then it was more conversational and the coffee came with a smile instead of being thrown at you,” Sledge says.
The “coffee with a smile” attitude that is so typical in the United States has to be earned in Europe, especially by tourists. People come and go all the time through cities like Segovia and Vienna. Shop owners never know if they will ever see the tourists again, so why would they want to waste the energy that could be put into an interaction with a regular customer who they know will come back?
“I almost like it better here when I know that the smile isn’t guaranteed,” Sledge says. “When I get a reaction from someone, I know that it’s because of our interaction and because they are responding to it. It’s kind of cool.”
Brightly colored menus with chalk writing lining the walls of cafés in the United States cause the everyday coffee drinker to stand in front of the endless choices for five minutes even though they already know what they are going to order. This distracted ordering is not present in Segovia. There are two choices: coffee con leche or coffee sin leche.
“There are not options on sizes and there are not options on flavors,” Sledge says. “You can get a black coffee or you can get a coffee with milk.”
There were not many options in Vienna either, but Ges walked Sledge through the different cup sizes and showed her what kind of drink would be in what size cup. One of the popular drinks is the Wiener Melange, a Viennese coffee similar to a cappuccino.
“It’s a small coffee with a lot more water and half and half,” Ges says, “You have to make a cream with the half and half to add to the top.”
After spending time in Europe, Sledge also noticed the different positions of the espresso machines compared to the usual placement in the United States. The espresso machines in cafés in the U.S. are usually facing away from the wall so the customer is unable to see the espresso shot being pulled. In Europe, the machine is facing the other direction and people, like Sledge, are able to predict how good of a cup of coffee it’s going to be.
“I kind of like that honesty with the customer. They’re very open and they’re showing you the quality of the coffee they are giving you,” she says.
There is a lot of pride that comes with the coffee culture in both Vienna and Segovia. Edmund Mayr manages the Kaffeemuseum Wien, a coffee museum in Vienna. The walls are lined with historical espresso machines, old coffee grinders, and even the first coffee pots in Vienna. Visitors to the museum can take classes to learn how to grind their own coffee.
“This is my personal collection,” Mayr says. He smiled widely at my surprised face. It was hard to believe one man owned so much of the Viennese coffee history. Although he didn’t speak much English, he took great pride in showing me around his building. There are signs hanging on the walls, in German, that tell the tale of the first coffee houses as well as commentary from historians. On one of these signs is displayed the words of Johann Pezzl, a historian from 1786.
“The determination of these houses has expanded infinitely more since its first origination. Man drinking coffee not only in the fact you take tea, chocolate, and punch. You study, you play, you chat, sleep, haggle, advertise designs, intrigue conspiracies, like games, reading newspapers and journals, etc.,” it reads.
“For me, it was neat because they were things he collected because he was interested without an alternative motive. It was also really cool to see various methods of roasting and grinding and brewing,” Sledge says. “In my marketing perspective, it was interesting to see the introduction of brand names, like, ‘Oh there’s the Keurig.’”
Although the Keurig has become popular today for making quick coffee, Ges’ café in Vienna has been passed down for many generations, brewing each cup with care. The pastries and food behind the glass counter are made according to the old family recipes, passing along tradition to each customer. Jars of different types of jam as well as boxes of round chocolates are displayed, the handiwork of Ges himself.
The handmade jams are made fresh from fruit grown by Ges’ friends. “You have to clean the fruits, then cut them, then add sugar, and cook it and then fill the jars up and boil it,” are the almost too simple instructions for the fruit explosion coming from the jar. The chocolates, however, are a little bit harder.
“You have to make different flavors to make the different fillings,” Ges explains, “You have to taste it every time to make it perfect.”
Olmos had always dreamed of owning a café. He worked for many years in a different café outside of Segovia and decided to open his own to combine his love of coffee and his baking skills. All of the pastries sold inside are handmade by Olmos himself.
“My café was the first one in Segovia that was a café and pastry store,” he says. The ponche cake, made only in Segovia, is his most popular pastry. This is a vanilla cake filled with cream and topped with almond marzipan.
While the streets of Vienna were lined with cafés like Ges’, Segovia has a few scattered here and there like Olmos’, some paired with bakeries, and others with bars.
Many places in Oregon are catering to customer interest by serving alcoholic caffeinated drinks as well, but Sledge isn’t quite sure how she feels about it.
“To me, they’re similar in the sense that they can both be made with a lot of pride and they can both be specified to the hops that go into the beer or the beans that go into the coffee,” she says. “But I feel like trying to have two specialties is weird. You kind of get suspicious, like how can you do both of those well?”
If Vector’s started making their own beer, it would seem to Sledge that they were trying to do too many things and not focusing on doing one thing well.
After spending six weeks in Europe and experiencing the coffee culture in two different countries, Sledge has determined that if she were to open a café in the future, it would have aspects of the cafés in each. But she would put an emphasis on customer service like in the United States.
“I would run it similarly to how it’s run at the shop I work at now. But I would offer a café con leche and Melange because they are awesome and European and I love them. And I would really encourage the smaller drinks,” Sledge says.
She explained that the same amount of espresso goes into each cup of coffee. The smaller drinks have fewer calories, but still have the right amount of caffeine. There is not as high of a chance of the coffee going cold before the customer has a chance to drink it all from the ceramic or paper cup, depending on if he stays or goes.
“I want people to have the option to leave, but definitely cups to stay,” Sledge says. “I want lots of couches and pillows and comfy chairs, places where people would want to come and hang out. I picture a very warm, welcoming atmosphere both with how it’s presented and how people are interacting. I want them to get really comfortable.”