Prague’s newest “museum” is not filled with Mucha originals, medieval art or rare stamp collections. Instead what’s on display at Gurmánský palác, right off Wenceslas Square, is three floors of tastefully arranged gourmet food products and delicacies from around the world: chocolates, cheeses, macarons, caviar and freshly butchered meats. There’s even a daintily stacked pyramid of Skippy peanut butter – your choice of crunchy or smooth.
Modeled after its flagship on Vienna’s swanky Am Graben, Julius Meinl Praha is the Austrian retailer’s first department store outside its home market. Its mid-December opening attracted much fanfare as dozens flocked to the high-street location to check out the care and precision that went into this elaborate presentation. The store is indeed pretty fancy, with its wood-paneled shelving, high ceilings and decadent pastry counter.
The aisles are wide; the atmosphere serene. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, out of place. No backwards turned marmalade jars or misplaced pasta packs here. Oh: Extra staffers are also on hand at the check-out to bag your purchases – free of charge! (And those cute, orange-handled paper bags? They’re free, too.) So, in other words, not your typical trip to a Prague supermarket.
Eight years after exiting the Czech market, Meinl makes its return at the tail end of one of the worst economic recessions the country has seen in recent history. But company execs remain optimistic. “What country has a good economy right now?” Herbert Vlasaty, general manager of Julius Meinl AG, points out. The retailer picked Prague to launch its department-store concept not only for its proximity to Vienna, but also for sentimental reasons: The Meinl family has roots in the Czech lands. “We think that Prague is a booming town, and that it is missing this kind of concept,” Vlasaty says.
The new store offers roughly 15,000 products and services, including a cafe, patisserie and restaurant, spread over 2,500 square meters. There is a room dedicated to wines and assorted liqueurs, while another area features teas and coffees. A corner nook on the second floor is deliciously stocked with cheeses – creamy Bries and aged Goudas that will leave a velvety caramel aftertaste in your month.
Have you tried this one? And what about that one? Christian Weissenbacher, the store’s managing director, urges coyly, ordering another round of Gouda Extra Old (119.90 CZK for 100g).
“Our prices are not so low, so the customer should have a chance to taste,” Weissenbacher tells me during a recent tour of the store.
Nearby sits a tantalizing pastry case, offering freshly baked cheesecakes (79 CZK per slice), colorful macarons (29 CZK a piece) and a range of intricately decorated chocolate confections, starting at 22 CZK. And if you’ve had a particularly bad day at work, whole cakes are available for 750 CZK. Everything is baked on-site, with the chef taking special requests.
Upstairs, the fish selection mostly hails from Italy – a fresh seafood mix for 45 CZK per 100g was among my personal favorites – while the butchered meats include the usual steaks and beef patties, as well as special treats like Japanese-style Wagyu beef from Australia, going for 9,999 CZK per chunk.
Barring exceptions such as the Wagyu beef and Italian truffles, on sale in the cheese department for 29,999 CZK per kilo, “we are going to be just a bit more expensive for things you can get at other places,” Weissenbacher explains.
Hmm. I visited the day the store opened and was stunned to find, for example, Dr. Oetker frozen pizza retailing for 99.90 CZK and a can of Heinz baked beans on offer for 89.90 CZK. Weissenbacher says such extravagant prices were the result of an unintended mistake. “It was a horrible situation,” he admits, “but we are repairing it.” He fears, however, that the error may have cost Meinl some early customers. The baked beans, I am pleased to report, are currently down to 39.90 CZK, and most other products, Weissenbacher assures, are now also displaying their correct prices.
“You have everything in one house,” says Weissenbacher. “If you want something special, you can come to our shop – we like good food, exotic things.”
The produce section, for instance, boasts an exclusive bin of “Coeur de Boeuf” tomatoes (159.90 CZK per kilo), while hidden in the rows of chocolates on the ground floor are Al nassma bars from Dubai, made from camel’s milk and selling for 299 CZK for 70g. “This is expensive, because camels don’t make a lot of milk, and you can’t find it anywhere else,” Weissenbacher says as I stuff a camel-shaped milk chocolate piece into my mouth. “We have chocolates from every major chocolate-producing country in the world.”
Speaking of wide assortments, Meinl has a wall filled with jams, marmalades and preserves from across Europe, and some of its honeys come from as far away as Tasmania (350g for 449 CZK). The store also carries a special line of balsamic vinegar from Leonardi, which I learned is not really used to flavor food at all but is generally enjoyed as a drink. At 1,599 CZK per 65g, I can understand why.
Needless to say, there is a lot to see. Meinl is not just pushing gourmet foods, but an experience. The city’s notoriously picky consumers, who are counting every crown these days, are still warming to the idea: During my five visits to the store, I’d wager a guess that there were more employees rushing about than shoppers. Weissenbacher says to give it time, predicting that things will pick up in the coming months as Meinl begins a vigorous marketing campaign. In the meantime, there are wine tastings to plan and last-minute touches to consider.
“We want to make the store cozier and more comfortable,” Weissenbacher says. “I don’t want to go into all the details right now though.”
Great, then let’s talk more about those wine tastings …
Julius Meinl Praha
28. října 377/13, Prague 1
Tel.: 225 996 101
Hours: Monday-Friday 8am-9pm; Saturday 9am-8pm; Sunday 10am-7pm
Web: www.meinlpraha.cz (still a work in progress)
1 chocolate brownie (25 CZK)
70g cactus jam with honey (149.90 CZK)
100g cheese (79.90 CZK)
100g sea food salad (45 CZK)
1 kg tomatoes (159.90 CZK)
1 kg red apples (89.90 CZK)
250g bio milk (59.90 CZK)
340g Skippy peanut butter (179.90 CZK)
Have you had the Julius Meinl experience?
Photos by Michael Heitmann
View For Foodies in a larger map