Refusing to be ground down: Warsaw’s independent cafés keep fighting despite lockdown

Ilona Przewoźniczek and Sławek Saran, owners of the Forum café, are having to adjust to a harsh new reality. Kalbar/TFN

It should have marked the climax; the final day of a weekend event attracting thousands of visitors and twice as many exhibitors as previous editions. But instead of signalling the grand finale of the 6th Warsaw Coffee Festival, this Sunday will instead be best remembered for its silent streets and nationwide sense of complete desolation.

Having consistently topped year-on-year highs in recent times, the covid-19 outbreak has smashed Poland’s booming specialty café scene particularly hard, rendering previously busy cafes locked, bolted and uncertain of the future.

“The news hit us like lightning,” admits Ilona Przewoźniczek, owner of Forum, an on-trend Warsaw café widely regarded as one of Poland’s best. “We expected reduced profits because of the coronavirus, but we never expected we’d have to close operations almost entirely.”

That feeling of having the rug pulled from underfoot is one echoed by Uri Wollner, owner of Cophi, an intimate central Warsaw café with a huge reputation that dwarfs its small footprint.

“If I look at my schedule alone, I had four coffee festivals planned this year in Asia, and another eight in Europe,” he tells TFN. “That said, it was always obvious it was going to affect Europe, but I think right now almost all of us are thinking this is just a totally messed up episode of Black Mirror.

Empty tables at Warsaw’s Stor Café.Kalbar/TFN

“Obviously we’re all very tense right now,” continues Wollner. “Everyone has rent to pay, bills, food... And then add to that salaries, invoices, stock... It isn’t an easy time, but I think the fact that it’s happening to everyone is, perhaps, the biggest advantage we hold.

“At least for the time being, it’s created a binding glue and a kindness. That said, as many know, the difference between sanity and insanity is only two letters! Let’s hope we stay being kind.”

It’s a sentiment that Ilona Przewoźniczek agrees with, and Forum’s owner is quick to point to the sense of togetherness that has brought the coffee community together.

“Poland’s specialty coffee scene has really stuck together over the last few days,” she tells TFN, “after all, all of our little cafes are like an informal café chain. We’re also lucky with the product we’re selling: once customers try top-quality coffee, there’s no turning back. They simply won’t revert to buying coffee from a big corporate chain or a supermarket. Good coffee is an addiction!”

Facing all of the independent cafes has been a stark choice: to flip the “Closed” sign or to somehow find new solutions.

But the coffee keeps flowing: a customer receives a cup.Kalbar/TFN

“The world of coffee is divided between cafes closing down ‘for the safety of their clients’ to other cafes trying to stay open within the new reality and guidelines,” says Wollner. “We’re from this second group, but as much as we’d love to have more daily guests, most people are in ‘home office’ mode which is why we’ve looked to other channels.”

In Cophi’s case, that’s meant launching a service delivering ‘stay at home’ coffee sets that feature not just coffee beans and equipment, but also a 20-minute Skype tutorials with the brand’s head barista.

“I think now is the time to get back to basics, figure out how to be creative, to continue engaging with your clients, and find new platforms or products to make a change,” says Wollner.

At Forum, as things stand, that’s meant opening to sell takeaway coffee at tight intervals during the day, while at Fat White, a super-cool café in the capital’s upcoming Muranów district, that’s meant taking the show on the road.

“We’ve started contactless deliveries around Warsaw,” says Piotr Głodek of Fat White. “Hit us up on Instagram, Facebook or and I’ll get on my wife’s bike and leave coffee outside the door whether you live down the road or down in Kabaty. Right now, my biggest worry is that I’ll have to change the café’s name from Fat White to Fit White!”

“I think now is the time to get back to basics, figure out how to be creative, to continue engaging with your clients,” says Wollner.Kalbar/TFN

Głodek’s humour, however, disguises the severity of the situation.

“Our clients are delighted because what we do is really safe,” he says, “but while we’re starting to get more and more custom, even if I spend all day riding the bike we’re still only earning around 15 to 20 percent of what we would have done if the café was open.”

Asked if this is worth his time, Głodek is emphatic in his response.

“It’s better to do something than nothing at all. All we can do is try our best and help people along the way.”

Fat White’s Piotr Głodek has taken to delivering coffee by bike.Facebook

Even in the face of such unprecedented adversity, it is clear that the white flag will not be readily raised. 

“It’s impossible to say how long we’ll stay closed,” says Głodek, “but I do know that every month a new wave of specialty coffee lovers emerge in Poland and it’s with their help that we’ll rise again.” 

It’s a quiet determination that manifests itself across the sector.

 “We’re staying optimistic and we’re sure we’ll survive as a business,” says Przewoźniczek. “We’re very lucky to have a beautiful community around us, and that much is evident by the messages we’re getting from our regulars and neighbours – every day they’re asking how they can support us and reassuring us that once this ends they’ll come in even more than before.”

“The news hit us like lightning,” admits Ilona Przewoźniczek, pictured with fellow co-owner Sławek Saran.Kalbar/TFN

Encouragingly, it’s not just on a micro-level that café owners and customers are uniting. Across the board, Poland’s “craft” sector has witnessed an outpouring of public backing.

“What we’re seeing is how important it is to support your local business,” says Głodek. “I don’t just mean the specialty coffee scene either – it doesn’t matter if its coffee, drinks, food or whatever else, try and buy from local stores, cafes, restaurants or roasteries.”

“It’s about more than just me and my business,” affirms Wollner. “It’s about your freedom of choice. If local businesses die, you WILL lose that beautiful democratic ‘privilege’ of deciding where to go next.

“The bottom line,” he concludes, “is support local. These businesses are the glue that binds the community. They’re the ones that make the extra effort for you, and they’re the ones that truly care about the user experience.”