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Essence Of Prague, Sip By Sip
By Suzanne J. Brown

Suzanne Brown’s personal account of a recent trip to Prague will leave you with a taste of Europe’s freshest cappuccino in your mouth!

‘People watching’ is definitely a tourist attraction in Europe; Paris is probably the best-known city for catching the latest au courant fashions without having to buy a copy of Vogue. But Prague offers tourists the experience of a city in transition, from the years of deprivation living in Eastern Europe, to the fast-pace capitalistic world of the west. One example of this east-west merge is walking by late-model, expensive cars such as Mercedes and BMW’s, parked along curbs that fold into the cobblestone streets.

Of course there’s no better method for discreet gawking than behind a cup of cappuccino.

Besides, what coffee or tea lover would miss the chance of sampling the local brews.

Seems like every city has at least one major river running through it. There are always plenty of parks with historical statues, outdoor cafes and opportunities to just sit and enjoy the surroundings. Since the purpose of this trip was the Coffee & Tea World Cup in Hamburg, I only managed to take in the local sites for a couple of hours and was invited by Alex Borwitzky and Thorsten Krahn, both of Tchibo, on a tour of several stores.

I had been interested in learning more about this chain of 400 stores with its successful market position. Half retail and half coffee shop, Tchibo stores are located within malls or as stand alone structures in busy shopping districts. My first experience was fascinating, seeing the range of retail products offered at very affordable (even by U.S. standards) prices. It’s hard to believe how much merchandise can be attractively displayed in approximately 1,000 square feet of space and still have a full size coffee bar with a few tables and stools.

As a barista judge at the conference, being present for the final award ceremony was a must! Plus, this was my first experience as a “certified” judge, having gone through the rigorous training by Sherri and Danny Johns of Whole Cup Consulting. Being a barista judge was a lot of fun, much more enjoyable than being a participant, at least from my perspective.

The competition was fierce; contestants were very professional and had worked very hard on original presentations. Since I was going to Prague, I was paying close attention to Stepanka Havrlikova from the Czech Republic. She entered the contest at the last minute, filling in for someone else. Visibly nervous, Stepanka was extremely professional, from looking crisp in her red tailored shirt with her café’s logo, to her smooth, efficient espresso machine techniques.

I can’t imagine being a contestant at the last minute, having to create a presentation, working with equipment you’re not used to, and having a limited understanding of English. Her first competition, Stepanka didn’t win, but participated with enthusiastic aplomb. After the awards, the conference closed and I took my newly learned barista judge skills to check out the coffeehouses in Prague. Learning to part the foam from the crema was a new skill learned in barista judge training and I used it during my coffee foray into Prague’s coffeehouses. Plus, I thought the process made me look like an intellectual, especially at the Franz Kafka coffee shop. My companion, however, thought I was just trying to spoon a tiny gnat out of the foam. Undaunted, I continued practicing my skills, which was part of my cultural experience.

Surviving the wars with buildings unharmed by bombs, Prague, “the city of a thousand spires,” captures the history and culture of old world Europe. If you haven’t been, Prague looks like Disney World in Fantasy Land around Cinderella’s castle. Baroque styled architecture and castles, opera houses and of course, many coffee cafes were built; some of the statues date back to the 15th century. With so many of the original buildings and cobblestone streets, one expected to run into a coffee peddler.

Eyeing the local fashion scene is one of the best studies in learning about local culture. Since I was there in mid-September, I couldn’t have asked for better walking or café al fresco weather. Each café had its own unique story, setting and interesting people. Yet much was missing from the Prague coffee bar scene. In contrast to the enthusiasm and passion shown in so many barista tournaments, that emotion was not evident. There was not one memorable cup I enjoyed and the whole atmosphere seemed to be lackluster. Prague still needs to develop its café/bar scene.

The cafés were tempting. I’ll start with Café Savoy, my personal favorite. Drawn inside by the display of tauntingly delicious-looking desserts and the aroma of freshly baked apple strudel, Café Savoy originally opened in 1893, but closed down during the First World War. In its place, shops opened, replacing the restaurant that it had become. In the 1990’s, the Savoy was restored and re-opened as a coffee house. One of its memorable features is the neo-Renaissance ceiling, which had been covered up during the retail shop days.

Much like young men and women who work in coffee shops throughout the world, Prague is no different. Employees wearing the latest clothing from H&M department store serving customers wearing orthopedic shoes and sporting caps capture the dichotomy currently being experienced in Prague, where the Charles River divides Old Town with New Town.

Near the busy Wenceslas Square is Café No. 1, where you can sit outside, casually sip a cappuccino and escape from the tourists crowding the garnet and Bohemian glass shops. Café No. 1 is different from many of the Prague cafes because it is small, functional and simple.

The Café Imperial is really more of an elegant restaurant than coffee house. From the outside, the huge windows allow people a glimpse of white tablecloths set for fine dining or dessert and coffee after the free concert next door at the beautiful Baroque Municipal House.

No matter where you go in Prague, perhaps the best tourist tip is that there is always a coffee café around the corner that will offer up a place to rest, absorb sights that aren’t on the tours and enjoy a great cup of coffee.

Suzanne Brown is principal/owner of Brown Marketing Communications LLC, based in Atlanta, Georgia, and can be contacted at (1)(404) 252-7399; Email: info@browncommunications.us. Web: www.browncommunications.us

Tea & Coffee - April/May, 2006


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