Cafe grec a la mode

Greeks comprise just 0.15 percent of the world’s population but drink 0.64 percent of its coffee – that is more than four times our «share.» Gone are the days of the classic frappe (the local version of iced coffee). Now people pay 3 euros for something that costs just 30 cents, not to mention the municipal fee for sidewalk tables. Kathimerini toured the city’s watering holes and found a number of surprises – coffee that costs just 2 euros, thousands of cafes with shiny plate glass windows and designer seating, waitresses with the de rigeur ring in their navel and cafes where the rent is 3,500 euros a month. First stop is the southern suburb of Nea Smyrni. Thursday morning, the renovated central square is the domain of mothers pushing strollers, children playing hooky, students taking it easy, workers on a break, businesspeople with their laptops. Two servicemen are chatting at a cafe with orange umbrellas, where the manager, Poppy, talks to us enthusiastically about her work. «It’s not impersonal, it’s a local. Most customers are our friends,» she tells us. The girls at the next table admit they spend four to five hours there every day. «The price of a coffee has gone up a lot in recent years. At least it should be worth it. We have so few pleasures left, a coffee is a present you give yourself every day. You can’t go out every night,» says Poppy. In upmarket Kolonaki, cafe owners talk about «top-quality blends» and «coffee imported direct from Milan» and the importance of humidity when «grinding a cappuccino.» Over the top? Not necessarily, they say. «Don’t look at the people sitting here with their shopping. If you’re going to succeed you have to have regulars, people who work nearby and come by at least once a day for a coffee. We’re all one neighborhood, you know,» said Nopi, who after working for a long period in a downtown cafe, rose to the position of manager at a popular sidewalk cafe in Kolonaki. The catchword here is quality and there is a mood about the cafes. Businesspeople stop for a quick espresso, women exchange beauty tips, and students from the provinces pay three times more for a freddo here than at their university cafe. But Kolonaki’s Da Capo and and Milioni Street cafes aren’t all that expensive compared to other more downmarket areas – in Bournazi in the city’s west, for example, a freddo cappuccino apparently goes for 4.70 euros. «It is expensive but it can’t be cheaper,» said one customer on the square. «The costs are prohibitive. When you pay 45,000 euros [in rent] a year for 100 square meters and sell things as cheap as coffee, you can’t make money unless there is overconsumption,» he added. An average Athens cafe uses up to a kilo of espresso every day, about 500 grams of instant coffee and 150 grams of filter coffee, according to one supply manager. In a place as busy as Kolonaki, however, a cafe such as the one where Nopi works needs up to 7.5 kilos daily. Espresso is doled out in very small doses, but Greeks like to linger at their tables, so they tend to order a second or even third. According to Nikos, manager at the Aigli cafe in Bournazi, new trends from abroad extend to the whole style of the premises. White sofas, wide aisles, bland background music and Fashion TV. Competition is rife – if one hires a pretty waitress, so must the place next door. If one hangs a chandelier, the place next door will install leather sofas. «We spent a lot of money on renovations, but we have seen a 100 percent increase in business,» Nikos said. When the street became a pedestrian area, that meant cafes could add more tables and thus serve more customers. And that meant more income. «Table tax is one of the best forms of revenue for us,» said Athanasios Theodorou, of the Municipality of Peristeri – where street space is 118 euros per square meter. In Exarchia, Lupe from Spain is drinking coffee at one of the first of the new cafes that have made Koletti Street fashionable. «Cafe culture is very expensive here,» Lupe said. «In Spain it is much cheaper. Here if you want a second coffee you’ll be spending about 6 euros.» In Dioskouri Street in Monastiraki, Dimitris’s cafe is quiet. «In the morning we have mostly foreigners who order a frappe and drink it down in two gulps,» he said. «We explain to them that here in Greece coffee is something that takes time, lingering over a newspaper, a chat, watching the world go by.» This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement, K, on May 28.