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GRIZZLY OWNER BLAMES IMMATURE MARKET

Capital expat bar shuts doors after three years in Old Town

THE DRAFT beer ran out at Bratislava's Grizzly bar at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, but no one complained. Most of the 150-odd customers had come less to drink than to bid farewell to the owner of the popular saloon, Ky Didier, and to mourn the loss of a locally celebrated expat hangout.
Grizzly officially shut its doors on January 26 after almost three years in business under Michael's Gate in the Slovak capital's Old Town district. Didier, 37, explained the closure as forced by low profit margins, high rent and utility costs and a changing expat community.
"It's real, real simple," drawled the Montana native. "When I got here in 1997 a tram ticket was six crowns, now it's twelve. Our costs keep going up, water and so on, whereas the price of imported and local beer hasn't changed that much. There just comes a point when what you're doing is no longer viable."


Ky Didier, owner of the now defunct Grizzly bar, is looking to stay in the hospitality industry in Slovakia or the region.
photo: Tom Nicholson

THE DRAFT beer ran out at Bratislava's Grizzly bar at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, but no one complained. Most of the 150-odd customers had come less to drink than to bid farewell to the owner of the popular saloon, Ky Didier, and to mourn the loss of a locally celebrated expat hangout.

Grizzly officially shut its doors on January 26 after almost three years in business under Michael's Gate in the Slovak capital's Old Town district. Didier, 37, explained the closure as forced by low profit margins, high rent and utility costs and a changing expat community.

"It's real, real simple," drawled the Montana native. "When I got here in 1997 a tram ticket was six crowns, now it's twelve. Our costs keep going up, water and so on, whereas the price of imported and local beer hasn't changed that much. There just comes a point when what you're doing is no longer viable."

As Didier made the rounds, dropping into vacant chairs beside familiar faces, Grizzly's regular patrons expressed a sense of loss.

"We've been sitting around with the guys and wondering where next," said John Dale, a member of the acoustic trio - Johnny Jihad and the Taliband - which had been invited to play Grizzly's last gig.

"This place has been like a home to me. I'm upset about this. A lot of us here knew each other by first names, but didn't have phone numbers or any other way of getting in touch. It's going to hurt a lot of friendships."

The day after

Having closed the bar at 3 a.m., Didier was at work Sunday afternoon under a single bar light, dismantling tables and chairs for storage. The beer fridges yawned empty; shadows covered the previous night's jetsam.

"I don't want to be an American businessman telling Slovaks they're doing it wrong, but I don't think the bar business is seen as a business yet in Slovakia," he said. "Slovak bars run margins they think are right, but supply is ahead of demand in this industry, which puts constraints on what you can charge. Also, there is an inherent value added to beer served in bars - maybe a clean, safe place to go out to, good service, good product, whatever - but I don't see that value being factored into prices when beer is going for Sk25."

Not only was the glutted pub industry tough on bars offering above-average service, Didier said, but his customer base - foreigners - had been in steady decline since Grizzly opened.

"Let's face it, we've lost our expat community," he said. "There's a different demographic now, with foreign companies turning over their management to locals, or with foreign managers becoming more often married people in their 40s, who might go out once every three weeks.

"It's not the same scene as a few years ago, when it was a lot of single people tipping down a few brews."

Asked if his closure had been forced by non-market factors such as having to pay protection money, or 'security tax', to Bratislava extortion groups who supply muscle in exchange, Didier shook his head.

"I'll say this - when you're running a bar downtown, it's always wise to have a bouncer. I'm not fluent in Slovak, and when you're dealing with someone who's intoxicated, you need a native speaker.

"But we never had a problem [with extortion], I think mainly because we were marketing our product to a different clientele. Women, for instance - we kept out toilets clean, kept them supplied with toilet paper and clean hand towels, and generally tried to make the place somewhere that was pleasant for women to frequent as well."

Other Bratislava bars have had their problems with violence. The Dubliner Irish pub, which became an expat Mecca after opening in December 1996, experienced a double shooting murder in 1999; the placid upscale restaurant Dolce Vita was the scene of a gangland killing in 2000; the Riviera cafe, less than 100 metres from Grizzly, witnessed a gang-related attack by 20 men with baseball bats last summer; and the Charlie's pub disco near the central Bratislava Tesco store was shaken by a stabbing murder on Christmas day 2001.

"People could hang out and feel safe at Grizzly and not have to be looking over their shoulders," said John Young, a lawyer with ES Legal Consult and a member of Johnny Jihad. "There seems to be an awful lot of nasty stuff happening at other pubs, and in the end this played a part in my choice of where to go out."

Didier conceded that it was sometimes difficult for bars, bent on selling as much alcohol as possible, to avoid outbreaks of violence, but noted that bar security itself was often at fault.

"Some places you see people getting thrown out ass over tea kettle when a hand on the shoulder would have been enough. This is basically a management problem - if your staff doesn't know how to behave you have to teach them."

He said he remembered only one bad fight in three years at Grizzly, "but that was between a Scotsman and an Irishman."

As Didier put on a fresh pot of coffee, musician Dale arrived to collect his guitar from the night before.

Dale played the Grizzly often in the past with his band Drink, Drank, Drunk, which folded at the end of last year. As Didier spoke of plans to "look at what's available, maybe do some hospitality industry consulting", the guitarist poured the cups on the bar.

"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that Ky opens up another place," he said. "Something even grizzlier."

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