Jazz In The Classical City
My first meeting 2 hours later is with a gentleman named Jazz. We drive an hour and a half to one of his company’s manufacturing facilities. During the drive through the countryside, I realize just how beautiful Austria is. For the entire trip all I see is farm after farm amidst New England-like rolling hills. There are fields of Alpine corn and pumpkin plantations followed by vineyards (described to me as “wine – not that great but not that bad either.”) The pumpkins in particular stand out, their Fall camouflage colors disguising this fruit as a vegetable. They look like rows of multi-colored bowling lanes in fields of brown dirt.
We arrive at Jazz’s company, Die Käsemacher. What sounds like death to cheese in German is a company that blends cheese and stuffs it into fruits and vegetables. After a quick tour the CEO Ms. Doris Ploner, Jazz and myself sit down and have pretty much the same discussion that I’ve had many, many times before. The prices that Die Käsemacher sells for in Austria and Europe are much higher than what can successfully compete in the States. European deli retailers will sell higher quality products at lower margins (35%) whereas American retailers follow the reverse (50%). As always, I encourage Die Käsemacher to sell first to their more profitable markets. When those markets are tapped out, then look to less profitable markets like the States.
To be fair, part of what keeps Austria unique is its’ intractability in the face of international pressure for change.
On the drive back to Vienna it isn’t even 4 pm but already darkness is falling. Jazz and I talk about a variety of things including politics, and the likelihood of Donald Trump becoming President of the U.S.A. When asked about his seeming fondness for Russia and Vladimir Putin, I honestly have no idea what to say. Russian-occupied Ukraine is only a 16 hour drive away. And the United Nation’s “I see nothink!” strategy can’t be very reassuring to neighboring sovereign States. Maybe those Austrian closet-makers are wiser than I knew.
The second day of my trip is dedicated to meetings hosted by the Austrian government hosts meetings in Vienna with domestic manufacturers and foreign importers. Beforehand there are a number of speeches given. Phrases like “Taste of Nature” or “Innovative in the Country, Successful in the World” are mentioned.
Austria is known for quality, having a higher percentage of organic farms than any other country in the E.U. (almost 20%)
Keep in mind that in this small Alpine version of Maine, over 50% of all agricultural land is in the mountains. Combine this with a lot of rain, darkness and unpredictable weather and I don’t blame farmers for being proud.
The Minister of Agriculture, Herr Andrä Rupprechter, eloquently and efficiently covers the complex topic of Austrian agriculture in exactly 10 minutes (his allotted time). The essential message here is that Austrian agriculture is the basis of this nation’s identity and pride.
Speakers afterward talk about “living in a globalized world.” Again and again there is an emphasis that Austria is synonymous with quality (and the unspoken comparison that non-Austrian agricultural products are not). Most Austrian processors are described as small and medium sized. Three quarters of them follow “traditional” production methods. On the other hand, Austria is repeatedly described as a very diverse and complex agricultural mecca; rich in foodstuffs. This starts to become confusing. Sometimes I think that whichever brand consultant the government hired has given the Austrian food community schizophrenia. Over the next few days, the rich and diverse array of Wiener Schnitzel on every restaurant menu doesn’t help dispel this confusion.
Austria is known for quality, having a higher percentage of organic farms than any other country in the E.U. (almost 20%). But outside of domestic consumption, Germany (with very similar food and beverage tastes) consumes the majority of Austrian agricultural exports. Basically, Austria makes a lot of what people with Germanic taste preferences want – meat, milk, cheese, grains, beer, wine, etc. Diversity and globalization in this context become an almost pejorative description. Being price competitive in overseas markets is portrayed as a betrayal to maintaining the quality of life of Austrian workers. However, Adam Smith’s invisible hand delivers a slap in the face when you compare the cost of living in other countries like Switzerland (#2), Norway (#4) or America (#21) with their larger agricultural exports, vs. Austria (#24).