Zagreb has 1,901 cafes. Yes, that’s right. Zagreb. has. one-thousand. nine hundred. and one cafes! (Just let that sink in... ... ... ... OK, ready?)
Things get odd when you try to understand why people go to which cafes. Typically we are taught that what matters most to customers is selection, customer service, and atmosphere. Anytime spent in the cafes of Zagreb tells you something else is at work here. For one, there are only three types of coffee served in Croatia: Franck, Lavazza, and the one that has a guy wearing a funny hat. Meanwhile, some of the most crowded cafes are the most bland and mundane atmospherically. We’re talking wood paneling that makes the place look like it’s a living room or what my grandpa used to call a “rumpus room” straight out of 1970s suburban America. And yet, the music is current. Absent in this choice of decor is any kind of “retro” irony that’s so popular with the kids nowadays. But, lots of people are to be found in this kind of cafe. You could even call it crowded. And finally, “customer service” as a phrase doesn’t even exist in most cafes (there are exceptions). In fact some of the most frequented and popular cafes have some of the worst service.
OK, so why do some people go to some cafes and not to others? What gives a cafe its competitive edge. For the 1k cafes, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of competition. Since my first time in Croatia I was and still am very confused about the criteria people use to select their cafe. We (meaning the people I generally have coffee with) go to certain spots for no obvious reason (like those given above). This behavior truly borders on the absurd in the warmer months when everyone is sitting outside and the cafes are basically identical. What? We can’t sit at THESE table and chairs, we have to sit at THOSE table and chairs, right next to the ones we won’t sit at! Huh? And yes, that happens.
And while the types of people that go to certain cafes are apparent, what is still unclear is how this happens? Because it’s not like the metal cafe is painted black with skulls on the walls (although that would be cool). The old man cafe doesn’t have shuffle board. Often there is no indication aside from the customers as to what differentiates one cafe from another. Do the owners of these places know ahead of time what kind of cafe they are opening? Is it strategic, part of their business plan? Proposed type of customers: Old guys. Or is it like so much else in Croatia, a happy accident? And if you think the names of places will shed some light in this inscrutable darkness, you are so utterly mistaken. The names of cafes are just another layer of mystery. Trust me, names likes Titanic, Sorry, Golf, Teacher’s Pub, Godot, Pif, Alcatraz, Kafka, Bogdan, K&K, Bacchus, Tituš, Romero, College, Limb, GP, Route 66 give you no indication of what kind of people you’ll find inside. Take Golf for example. Golf. Nothing could sound more like a cafe for old men. No. It’s not. It’s actually where the young folks like to frequent.
To locals the question of who goes where and why is intuitive. They just feel it. It’s part of being part of a place. Once you get a city’s unsaid rhythms and unspoken rules, then you get in the flow and just know where to go.