A revived cup of coffee

The Prague Post

Starbucks transforms historic kavárna into modern café

Old buildings abound in Prague, and that’s part of the city’s charm. From Gothic and Baroque to Art Nouveau and Cubist, the melody of architectures blends in beautiful harmony.

For developers, though, it can sometimes be a sour tune. To find a suitable building available in the city center that fits their needs, while keeping in line with the city and preservation authorities, can sometimes be a challenge.

Starbucks faced similar concerns when it transformed the historic Palác Grömlingovský on Malostranské náměstí into its flagship store — its first coffeehouse in the Czech Republic — earlier this year.

“The significance and location of the building is great,” says Jakub Střeštík, operations director of Starbucks for the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. “We wanted to launch Starbucks on the Czech market with something that has a special meaning for local people and Czechs in general.”

The building, which dominates Malá Strana’s busy tourist square, first opened in 1874 and was home to Café Radetzky. In 1918, it became Malostranská kavárna, a famous and historic spot, frequented by such luminaries as writers Franz Kafka and Jan Neruda and opera star Ema Destinnová. It was this storied history that initially attracted Starbucks to the building.

“When we were thinking about opening our first store, we wanted a store that would give a message to the market and communicate the brand,” explains Radovan Podracký, Starbucks’ store development director for the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. “We definitely wanted to open the store in a prestigious place, accessible for both tourists and locals.”

However, landing such a high-profile spot, especially one that is as endearing to the neighborhood as Palác Grömlingovský, can be difficult.

“To get a property like this, you need to be able to work with developers, agents [and] landlords,” Podracký says.

Needless to say, there were quite a few people to win over. Podracký and his team held numerous meetings with the local community and charities to explain the Starbucks concept and brand image.

“They were worried it was fast-food coffee and concerned that it would change the neighborhood,” Podracký says. “Until the opening, no one trusted us, but I think they were surprised. It has a nice atmosphere. … Everyone is pleased.”

This includes City Hall.

“Historical buildings were designed and built for a specific purpose. It is not possible to burden them with businesses that are demanding in terms of their operation,” says Jan Knižínek, head of City Hall’s heritage protection department. “The buildings should not be damaged, but quite the contrary, their value should increase.”

In the case of Starbucks, Knižínek adds, “the building only needed minor changes … [which] did not interfere with the specifics of a historical monument.”

Starbucks got lucky when it came to potential reconstruction and renovations as well. When Kampa Group’s Square restaurant moved in about seven years ago, there was extensive reconstruction. Today, the building remains structurally the same as when it was the restaurant. Starbucks did, however, put in new plumbing, new bathrooms, some new floors, renovated the kitchen, gave it a good cleaning and did some general remodeling such as painting the walls when it took over.

But it wasn’t all that easy, Podracký notes. For one, there are no original plans of the building, “so whatever you touched, you were just waiting to see what will happen,” Podracký says. “Luckily, most of the work was done by the previous tenant.”

City officials and representatives of the preservation office were also heavily involved in the process, so there were limits to what could be changed and added.

“We had to find a balance in negotiations,” Podracký says, “to find a compromise between respecting the building, requirements from the authorities and the brand.”

Installing the air-conditioning and ventilation systems to make it consistent throughout the whole building was a particular challenge, as was deciding on the outside signage. Podracký says a lot of energy went into discussions with the preservation office so that the signage would not damage the facade, as well as respect the existing house and historical concept of the building. Making the patio’s look satisfy authorities posed some difficulties, as did finding a place to install the store’s free Wi-Fi system.

“Most of the work we did [preparing the store] was hidden,” Podracký says. “But it still all had to be communicated to the authorities.”

Not to mention the paperwork that went along with this project.

“I have 10 to 15 years of experience with permits and permissions, and this was my nightmare,” Podracký says. “The preparation took longer than the work itself, and we were always wondering whether what we were doing might negatively affect the building.”

Since opening its store in January, Starbucks has christened several other locations around the capital. Podracký says things went smoother with these openings, thanks, in part, to what the company learned during the Malá Strana remodeling.

“But every new site is different, with new approvals and so many specifics,” he says.