Where the customer is not king

Image of Harry Eyres

I had always wondered about the astonishing cheerfulness of employees of the coffee and sandwich chain Pret A Manger. After all, these well-educated and charming young people were presumably being paid a pittance to deliver not just an endless stream of skinny flat whites (cappuccinos are so passé) but also radiant smiles. Now the truth has emerged (in a latte-curdling piece by Paul Myerscough in the London Review of Books last month), and it has a sinister quality, not so much Orwellian as Orwello-Huxleyan, in its combination of surveillance and compulsory happiness.

Employment at Pret A Manger is dependent on being able to show a full range of what are called the “Pret behaviours”: these include, on the negative side, not being “moody or bad-tempered” or appearing to be “just here for the money”; and on the positive side, being able to “create a sense of fun” and being “genuinely friendly” (note that “genuinely”). He or she who dares not to smile is toast (sourdough, with no honey or jam on the side). Inspectors posing as customers patrol the Pret estate, ensuring these behaviours are maintained.

Spending a few weeks in Vienna gives the café-habitué a chance to sample the polar opposite of this approach. The “Pret Perfect” worker, according to the Pret website, “never gives up” in his or her attempts to please the customer; he or she “goes out of their way to be helpful”. Quite the reverse philosophy holds in Vienna’s stately and sometimes smoky coffee-houses.

In establishments such as Café Schwarzenberg on the Ringstrasse, the customer is not king. The regal, or imperial, position is taken by the waiters. Viennese café waiters make a fascinating study. With their slightly shabby tuxedos, their brilliantined hair and their array of facial tics, they exude an air of nostalgia for better times, like a collection of exiled dignitaries. Maybe they are, in fact, the relics of some long-vanished diplomatic service, the ambassadorial corps of Cisleithania or Transleithania.

At any rate, their grandeur and dignity put the customer in the position not of arrogant commander, but of humble supplicant. This starts from the moment you enter the complicated sets of double doors that guard the entrance to most Viennese cafés. Some helpfully have the words “drücken” or “ziehen” written on them, but others, deliberately or maliciously, do not, so that you find yourself helplessly pushing when you should be pulling and vice versa. Humiliation is intensified when you finally manage to get inside: of course, you will do nothing so presumptuous as to seat yourself at a table; you must wait until you have caught the eye of one of the preoccupied eminences, who do not so much go “out of their way to be helpful” as go out of their way to ignore and belittle you.

The effect is to make you feel absurdly grateful to be noticed and seated and served, rather as some peasant from the outer fringes of the Austro-Hungarian empire might have felt while waiting for some bureaucratic procedure – the authorisation of the replanting of a vineyard, say – when an official deigned to address their case.

When you do reach the haven of your marble-topped table, you should on no account expect that your waiters will “work at pace” or “create a sense of fun” as recommended by Pret. Pace and fun are not what Viennese cafés are about. They aim for higher things.

At my favourite coffee-houses in Vienna, Prückel on the Stubenring, or Tirolerhof near the Albertina, nothing should be done in a hurry, either by you or the waiter. The first thing is to ensconce yourself comfortably, hanging up your coat, scarf and hat (stands and racks are liberally provided, which you never see clogging up the space at Pret). Some customers will be reading weighty books, others perusing bound newspapers. In such an atmosphere, it would be inappropriate to do anything at pace, so the somnambulistic style of the waiters chimes with an ambience conducive to higher thought.

Above all, there is peace. The idea of canned background music is unthinkable. You can hear a live pianist at Prückel on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, but that is quite another matter. The only sound you normally hear is the contented murmur or hum of conversation – true conversation, it seems, not the barked babble of mobile phones.

The great Viennese cafés, for all their aura of imperial grandeur, seem to me havens of democratic humanity. The democracy comes from the way all conditions of people, young and old, shabby and smart, sociable and solitary, can be gathered under high chandelier-hung ceilings. I even find it reassuring that the waiters – unlike the maniacally smiling baristas of Pret – are permitted their all-too-human eccentricities and grumpiness. They have a reassuring permanence, they are part of the order of things; the waiters, after all, are the ones who remain and set the tone of the establishment, while customers come and go.


More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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