Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 20:50 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 20:50 | SYDNEY

Cultured capitalism


Sam Roggeveen


29 March 2011 12:34

As an Australian visiting the US, it is difficult to resist Graeme Dobell's 'Oz sightings' game — looking for mentions of your home country in the local media. This morning's perusal of the Washington Post returned a rather pitiful single mention, in the form of a highly favourable review of the stage musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

We Australians may question their priorities, but alas, Americans — the political classes, at least — are pre-occupied not with us but with President Obama's speech on Libya. More on that tomorrow.

Meantime, one cultural note relating to chain stores. American corporations long ago mastered the art of making standardised food and drink profitable, but it seems that, in Washington at least, some have now managed the unlikely feat of making chain stores cool. 

Australians are rather smug these days about the sophisticated coffee culture we have developed, which saw off the might of Starbucks. In Washington, by contrast, coffee chains like Starbucks attract a hip young crowd. University students crowd these places, with the atmosphere more like a library than a cafe. Everyone is hunched over textbooks or laptops (come for the free wifi, stay for the coffee) and all talk is at a low hush.

What's more, the customers are all impeccably dressed and groomed — Washingtonians make an effort when they go out. And then there's the service culture, which is more generous than ours. It's not just the coffee chains — the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods attracts a similar demographic.

Altogether, these places feel quite inviting, which you wouldn't ordinarily say about a chain food outlet. I can't think of an Australian equivalent to this phenomenon. For Australians, 'big' and 'hip' seem not to go together.

Picture, riffing on Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, by Mike Licht.