Cover photo

Big City Cinnamon Rolls

Or how momentary desires create something we don't want

The other day, I found myself queuing in front of a newly opened branch of a store for cinnamon rolls. Its opening had long been foretold on social media channels, keeping everyone in the city guessing what the location would be.

In the first days after welcoming its first customer, queues stretched 80 meters, mainly consisting of young girls and women dragging their partners along. Such is the impact of hyping up your launch on social channels and then optimizing for being Instagramable.

A friend of mine, way more on top of the food trends, was the reason I, too, was in that queue. If it weren't for her, I'd still be blissfully unaware of the existence of New York Rolls - probably believing them to be some American interpretation of sushi featuring hot dog ingredients.

Luckily, we went on a Wednesday, ten days after the first day of business. In just a few minutes, it was our turn, and we even got a seat inside the store, which had a maximum of 20 seats.

Looking around, it wasn't the type of place that'd invite longer stays, let alone deeper contemplation.

The walls were white, and some pastel purple accents here and there broke up the monotony. The chairs, made of steel or some sort of chrome, looked like they could have been a fence in an earlier life. They were very futuristic and very cool, but not very comfortable for staying longer than 47 minutes. The most inviting thing in there was a bouquet of flowers—real flowers, not plastic. I give points for that.

Anyway, we were there for the cinnamon rolls, not to feel inspired. The display brimmed with colors; anything from green (pistachio) to red (red velvet) to blue (blueberry) was there.

Around us, everyone was taking pictures of their rolls, arranging them alongside the purple serviettes, forks, and drinks served in a grey-sprinkled ceramic mug into a still life of sweet decadence.

Sweet, it was. Cinnamon, I tasted very little of it. Weird for a place supposedly specialized in them.

But if anything, what these types of places specialize in is fulfilling sweet cravings and the need to have new things to post on social media. The futuristic interior, after all, makes for a good shot.

However, it's also the type of scenery you can find in countless cities across the world. There's nothing in it that indicates where you're at. Sure, people spoke German, but that was about it. From the choices of furniture to the overly stuffed cinnamon rolls, all of it could as well have been in New York or Tokyo. Big City Cinnamon Rolls in our small town.

An invasion.

When we have perfectly delicious cinnamon rolls from our local, often-praised bakeries with centuries-long history.

Yet, we queue in front of the place that is part of a bigger chain and has over-engineered cinnamon rolls to be anything but their original form. Take the cookie dough cinnamon roll. It's weird to me anyway that cookie dough, a supposedly unfinished product, has such a huge market now. They've slathered three cookies' worth of dough on a cinnamon roll. Technically, they should call it a Cookie Dough with Cinnamon Roll filling—anyway.

Maybe it's for the best when I don't stay on top of food trends. For my sanity and waistline. 😏

Chances are, it's the only time I'll be in that store.

I, too, had a phase in my life where I'd seek out these modern, full-of-glass places that could have been anywhere.

Now, when I can have my way, on Sundays, I walk down the river across the Blue Wonder (a bridge that miraculously survived the Nazi's command to bomb it to slow down the Soviet advance as local citizens fought to keep it) and sit down in a local cafe.

They've got amazing hot chocolate and a huge table in the middle, which is perfect for people like me who walk around with notebooks, post-its, and books. The lamps in the store are all from the 50s, or at least how I imagine them to have looked. Here and there is a huge plastic gummy bear. On the wall are cubic paintings.

Next to the lamps, magazines on architecture, art, and interior.

The cakes changing every day. In front of the bathroom, you can grab free postcards or pamphlets featuring local gallery's exhibits.

What's preferable?

The answer seems clear, and yet, cities seem to trend towards feeling all the same.

Wherever you go, there is a McDonald's, a Starbucks, and a Subway. The Great American Colonialism.

More than democracy, it seems, they've exported mega-corporations.

Economists would say this is great. Hyperspecialization offers the most choice to consumers.

And scale should lead to lower prices for people.

So, the theory.

Is it really what we want, though? Cities full of chains that look the same wherever you go?

The same five big corporates offering us all variations of food trends - we've been told to engage with on the 3 big social platforms.

I believe intuitively, we all sense that corporations lose something as they reach mega-scale. And that it might be just the most important things, like caring about humans.

Profit becoming the only purpose of the business isn't great for anyone involved.

Neither is it when these chains come to dominate our environment.

Marc Auge coined the term non-place for such places - where you can't tell where you're by their features. Kinda like Canary Wharf.

"Everywhere looks like everywhere else, and as a result, anywhere feels like nowhere in particular"

Darran Anderson

The area where I live is also known as the Florence of the Elbe River because of its stunning baroque old town.

Nevertheless, the urban reformer has taken over, and countless previously beautiful spots have turned into just another urban wasteland where a lack of sense meets brutalist architecture.

It's probably all related.

Our desire is to grow businesses to hyper-scale for the best possible access to any product you can think of (cinnamon rolls drowning in cookie dough included) and the building of these mega-structures that do nothing but stress us out while making everywhere feel the same.

"Modernity's catastrophe is best captured in the desire to build universal citadels that separate people from the particulars: of cause and effect, of climate, of the natural world, of local culture."

Darran Anderson

It's time to acknowledge that we might lose a lot if we all just chase the same hyped food trend delivered by the big franchise chains at all times.

We're not in the industrial age anymore. And we're facing a lot of challenges that require humanity and creativity - something big corporates lose.

When was the last time you had a friendly chat with a Starbucks barista?

Chances are your local kebab guy knows you better than any of their baristas - after all, there's often no room for chatting in a crowded Starbucks.

The Kebab shops, on the other hand, operate on a different scale. They make enough, but they're not trying to dominate the world.

Instead, you walk in, and they welcome you with a friendly "Hey, Boss"

Reddit

And if you're lucky, you even get a lollipop after they ask you why you've not shown up in a while.

"Human scale institutions strive for optimum scale. Not mega scale. The point at which maximum quality can be attained. Their purpose is not to maximize profitability. It is to maximize well-being."

Umair Haque

We need more of those.

Places and companies that strive to be the best for where they're at.

Deeply embedded in their surroundings, where you can show up and already the interior tells you it's okay for you to just be here for some time.

It's inviting, not sterile.

The furniture might bear a "sheen of antiquity," as Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows:

"For better or worse [...] we do love the colors and sheen that call to mind the past that made them."

Next time, I'll satisfy my cinnamon cravings at my local bakery.

They don't always have cinnamon rolls on offer.

Only when it's written on the blackboard outside their door.

And that, to me, is wonderful.

Something special in a world where so much is taken for granted because it's always available.

Next time, maybe pick the small bookstore over the chain, the local winery over the imported wine from Chile, and check out a small coffee store run by someone who's fulfilling their dream with it.

You might learn something new. About your area or yourself.

Naomi

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