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Explosion of new pubs defies image of a stagnant economy

When Bratislava's Café Ante Portas opened in June, its owners were afraid that business might be slow during the summer months with the capital's many university students on holiday.
But with the summer drawing to a close, Ante Portas owner Albert Otruba says his fears have proven unfounded. "I have been very surprised. So far we've been full every night," he said, sipping a coffee in the morning sunshine as the café's waitstaff prepared for another business day.
Altruba and his two partners are members of a rapidly growing club - food and beverage entrepreneurs operating in Bratislava's old town. They, like other new restauranteurs, appear to be defying the odds: despite falling consumer purchasing power and the exorbitant costs of running a business in the city centre, restaurants, pubs and cafés continue to open at a dizzying rate. And with free places still hard to come by on a weekend night, the boom shows no signs of letting up.


The 1996 opening of the Dubliner Irish pub is generally regarded as a turning point for café and pub culture in the capital, where new startups continue to arise despite the country's poor economic performance.
Photo: Ján Svrček

When Bratislava's Café Ante Portas opened in June, its owners were afraid that business might be slow during the summer months with the capital's many university students on holiday.

But with the summer drawing to a close, Ante Portas owner Albert Otruba says his fears have proven unfounded. "I have been very surprised. So far we've been full every night," he said, sipping a coffee in the morning sunshine as the café's waitstaff prepared for another business day.

Altruba and his two partners are members of a rapidly growing club - food and beverage entrepreneurs operating in Bratislava's old town. They, like other new restauranteurs, appear to be defying the odds: despite falling consumer purchasing power and the exorbitant costs of running a business in the city centre, restaurants, pubs and cafés continue to open at a dizzying rate. And with free places still hard to come by on a weekend night, the boom shows no signs of letting up.

"More new restaurants and pubs have opened up this past year than in any year since 1989," agreed Old Town spokesman Milan Vajda, although he was unable to provide statistics confirming the trend.

Part of the mystery lies in the fact that life in Bratislava does not reflect conditions in other parts of the country. While real wages declined nationwide in 1999 by 3.1% and by 6.1% in the first quarter of this year, the average salary in the capital was almost 30% higher than the national average. Unemployment, meanwhile, exceeded 20% for the country as a whole in 1999, but hovered around 5% in the greater Bratislava area.

"Bratislava's economy is more advanced than the rest of the country's, so it can be rather confusing to use numbers from the nation as a whole to judge the situation here," said Martin Barto, head analyst at the SLSP state bank. "In addition, Bratislava has a foreign population that continues to grow as foreign banking and finance companies as well as firms interested in privatization continue to enter the market. People here have more money to spend on going out."

But a comparatively stronger economy and the presence of foreigners only partially explains the current food and beverage explosion. According to Barto, the sector has long been underdeveloped, and only recently has supply begun to meet demand.

Although Bratislava, like neighboring capitals Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, was historically known for its café culture, 40 years of communism effectively destroyed that tradition. By 1989, only a handful of pubs and restaurants operated in Bratislava's city centre.

Pub owners and analysts agree that the 1996 opening of the Irish Pub, the city's first 'theme bar', was a seminal moment for Bratislava, breaking new ground and demonstrating the demand for and viability of pubs and restaurants in Bratislava's city centre.

"One of the things the Irish Pub showed was that Slovaks are not as concerned with prices as people had thought," said Otruba. "I have an aunt in Germany that always laughs when she comes to visit. She says Slovaks are always complaining about not having money, yet all the pubs and restaurants in Bratislava are always full."

While demand for new pubs and restaurants continues to fuel new enterprises, few are certain when the limit will be reached. Owners theorise that new restaurants and pubs may not be not only answering but also increasing demand by adding to a nightlife that is bringing ever more Slovaks flocking to the centre.

"When we originally opened I thought perhaps demand was nearing its limit," said Otruba. "But it seems the more cafés and restaurants, the better the offer, and the more people that come into the centre. I'm not sure exactly where the saturation point is, but it seems to me that if you open a business [at this time] in the city centre that offers something new, it should be a success."

Café Ante Portas is a chic cross between a subdued café and a lively pub. It targets professionals in their 20s and 30s, and has begun to develop a reputation as a hang-out for journalists. Their menu of light foods, including several salads and pasta dishes, is unique in its focus on vegetarian dishes. Breakfast, another rarity on the Slovak market, will be served soon starting at eight in the morning.

Across from Ante Portas sits Montana's Grizzly Pub, an American theme bar/restaurant with a beautiful open outdoor garden. Around the corner, a newly opened French restaurant serves crepes. Fifty metres towards the main square lie two more establishments opened in the past year - a wine bar and a 'wild west' pub. Each of these establishments provides services and/or products hitherto unknown to the Slovak market, many at hefty prices also previously unheard of.

But while many niches have been filled, Barto still sees areas of untapped potential. "The next stage is to improve quality and variety," said the economic analyst. "For example, there is not one Indian restaurant in Bratislava."

Although Bratislava has seen the most dramatic growth in the food and beverage industry in Slovakia, the phenomenon, to a lesser extent, has been reported in many cities across the country. Adriana Lešková, a 24 year-old English teacher living in Bratislava, says that in the past year at least seven new pubs have opened in her native Prešov, a city with high unemployment (22%) and the lowest average wages in Slovakia (8,683 crowns per month in 1999). Analysts say that in Prešov, too, communism created a dearth of pubs and cafés that is only now being corrected. But according to Lešková, there may be a simpler explanation. "You know, the economy may not be good in Prešov," she said. "But Slovaks will always find money for going to the pub."

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