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Prague: After communism, customer service and calories

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(Read caption) Butcher Josef Kosina provides service to a customer.

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•A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Salamis hang like chimes, sausages are stacked into pyramids, and the refrigerator holds not only the Czech soda, Kofola, but newcomers Gatorade, Pepsi, and Schweppes.

In the old days, a Prague butcher shop like this would offer slabs of gristly bacon with just a rumor of meat, or an entire dead chicken, leaving customers to deal with feathers and evisceration.

Today, butcher Josef Kosina does it for them, engaging in light banter as he trims the fat and whacks the chicken into easy-to-cook chunks. “We’re responding to customer demand, to give better service,” says Mr. Kosina, cleaver in hand.

Among all the changes in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, gastronomic culture – from higher-quality food to slick advertising, and from the rise of customer service to the onslaught of obesity – opens a window onto how the post-Communist lifestyle has Westernized.

Older generations remember deprivations of the past, the rations and shortages, long lines, and empty shelves. People who subsisted for centuries on what they pulled from the ground, plucked from a tree, or cooked from a beast grew accustomed to subpar, state-produced goods – gruffly served.

Today, private ownership and profit motive have revolutionized the region. Aisles and aisles of store shelves are stocked with a dizzying range of local and pricey imported products, especially in the ubiquitous Western “hypermarkets.” Some have separate Asian or Mexican sections. Oranges are a year-round option, as are kiwis, coconuts, and pineapples. Where there was once a lone brand of toilet paper or cereal (tasting like the cardboard in which it was boxed) dozens now jostle for primacy, glorified by Western-style marketing.

That trickles down to the Prague butcher shop, one of three co-owned by Bohuslav Novy. He says his shop responds to demand with less-fatty meat, special cuts, and greater range, like beef, lamb, veal, and even rabbit. A new deli section offers salads, baguettes, and made-to-order sandwiches.

And if his butchers “aren’t polite and don’t smile at our customers,” says Mr. Novy, “we must tell them goodbye, of course.”

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