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Changing Habits in Sophia’s Tavern

Sophia owns and runs a restaurant in the middle class suburbs of northeast Athens. She has been in the job for more than 25 years. In January 2013, we sat down with her and took down the following points she made – changing only her name:

Rise in Taxes
•    The most direct blow from the crisis has been the increase in VAT – the tax that restaurants have to give to the taxman – from 13% to 23% in September 2011. Within a year income for restaurant owners dropped by 40% and 4000 restaurants closed down leading to the loss of 30.000 jobs.
•    Sophia kept her business running, but found herself cornered in what was an unbearable situation: ‘We either have to raise our prices [to make for the loss in income] in a time when we should be dropping them, or we do indeed drop the prices reducing our profit margin or even making losses’
•    While the 23% rise applied to all of central Greek mainland, it did not apply to the peripheries, which did make sense for ‘forgotten corners’ of the country, but not for mass tourist destinations like Mykonos. Having her business in Athens, Sophia found this unjust and inappropriate.
•    The dramatic VAT rise led, of course, to a rise in the price of the dishes on offers in her restaurant.

The Greek Crisis History Project notes:
– The government has identified tourism as one of the few sectors of the economy that can produce growth and hence it protects it. The direct result is that tourists buy food cheaper than Greeks. Even more, tourists get the wrong impression about ‘life under crisis’. This is quite similar to the Cuban policy of different prices in the tourist areas of the country, where tourists also get their own currency to spend, the Pesos Convertibles. But there is a key difference between Greece and Cuba: in the latter tourists are paying higher prices than the locals.
– Back in the restaurants, there is a question hanging over on who pays the VAT increase: the restaurant owner or the customer. This again creates areas of tension, and questions of guilt on who exploits whom. Both customers and restaurant owners seem to suffer, as the rise in VAT is inevitably reflected in the bills.
[editors’ update – February 2014: the government did drop the VAT back to 13% in August 2013, but in December 2013 the troika started pushing for it to go back to 23% – consultations continue]

Legal Dilemmas
•    At the start of 2013 a new regulation was introduced offering the right to customers to leave the restaurant without paying if the owner refuses to give them a valid receipt. This was part of the government’s efforts to reduce tax-evasion. But, owners regarded this unfair as there was no way for them to prove that customers left bills unpaid even if they were actually given a receipt. Sophia said that this regulation works in favour of the customer as it is one-sided and it does not offer a protection for the owner. This is the reason why some restaurant owners – she knew stories from Crete and south Peloponnese – decided to attach a note on the menus, informing that ‘we respect the new regulation but in case a customer leaves without paying we have the right to act against him legally’. It is interesting how the new regulation, somehow, placed the two parties (owner and customer) in opposing sides, triggering mutual suspicion.
•    On the other hand, throughout the crisis a far more common approach is one that bypasses the state and its laws, in which customers ask if it is possible to pay less and in exchange they will not ask the tavern-owner for an official tax-receipt.

The Greek Crisis History Project notes:
– The last point hints to a mutual interest between the owner and the customer. But the owner faces a great challenge if such a decision is taken, given the very regular visits by the scrutinizing relevant authorities.
– This last point is also a very good example of the way citizens are cornered to situations, where the most easy step to take is to bypass the state. Although such arrangements are against the law, we can say that the severe financial policies and legal measures cannot promote a total reconstruction of the common thinking in relation to ‘corruption’. On the contrary, such measures build a new ethos and a
common understanding between the customer and the owner: they both know that in a way they are being exploited and combine their interests in mutually beneficial ways: the customer pays less and the owner avoids paying the 23% VAT.

Shrinking Orders
•    The days of great and large orders belong to the past. People tend to ask for fewer dishes. ‘Gone are the times when the waiter could not find space to put the ordered dishes on the customers’ tables’, tavernaSophia says, looking back to the affluent ‘Stock Exchange’ days of the late 1990s, when people placed orders without second thought, and most of the food was left uneaten and was thrown away. Nowadays, orders are placed after careful consideration, customers spending a significant time in checking the menu and prices.
•    Nonetheless, Sophia stresses that a certain element of sharing is still an integral part of the ethos of the people who visit her restaurant.
•    What has definitely changed though is the ‘main dish’ culture: people used to share starters at the beginning and then order the main dish – one for each – which used to be shared among all. But now, customers avoid to order a ‘main dish’ for each one of them. Instead four people tend to order just two main dishes, something that was unimaginable in the old days. (it was also considered a bit embarrassing  to place such orders).
•    People do not order a lot of starters any more. Chips – that was a staple – as well as Tzatziki (Τζατζίκι), have dropped significantly. In many cases parents have to negotiate the order of chips with their children, to persuade them they do not really need them.
•    Tzatziki is one of the great losers! The reason is that it is a classic accompaniment for dishes that people do not order any more: Grill, Roasts (Ψητά), Steak (Μπριζόλες), Chops (Παïδάκια), Burgers (Μπιφτέκια). Sophia – who is in charge of the everyday shopping for the restaurant – has stopped buying chops exactly because they do not sell.
•    Steaks are now shared by two people.
•    The question ‘how many burgers are included in one portion’ is raised quite often. Two people tend to order just one dish as it contains two pieces.
•    It is quite rare to find parents who visit the restaurant with their children and are willing enough to order main dishes for the kids. Usually they ask one main dish to be divided into 2 little portions for the children. ‘A very common question that the parents make is how big the portion is’, Sophia notes.
•    The majority of customers ask for some aluminum foil (Αλουμινόχαρτο) or a packet to take home the food remainders. ( This is the ‘new trend of the Αλουμινόχαρτο’)

Drinking Up
•    In terms of drinks, bottled and branded wines are not ordered almost at all. House wine from the barrel (Χύμα) is preferred but in small portions. You cannot see anymore what used to be common – at the end of the dinner bottles are now totally empty, which means that there are not additional orders for wine. Usually people used to order the next bottle immediately after they filled their glasses. Now, they tend to order the exact amount of wine to accompany their dinner and no more.
•    A last meze to share at the end of dinner is not the case anymore. A typical example in the past would be a last bottle of wine to accompany a fried tomatoes and eggs dish (Καγιανάς / Στραπατσάδα).
•    About three out of ten customers do not order any drinks! ‘Nothing at all, just tap water!’
•    Fizzy drinks (Αναψυκτικά) for children are not ordered like in the past, when – after only a short debate with their parents – children used to get a Coke or a Fanta.
•    Soda is the great loser in terms of drinks, as it is not mixed with wine anymore – viewed as an unnecessary luxury.

Human Contacts
•    People who used to be regular customers (coming every single week) appear much less frequently now, being very apologetic, trying to explain to Sophia – whom they know for years – how the new economic measures have ruined their lives and as a result they cannot visit as often as they would like. Reflecting on this, Sophia says: ‘We are all in the same position. What can they tell you and what can you tell them’.
•    People have totally forgotten their old habit to make bookings prior to a big name-day, like on St Dimitrios (Άγιος Δημήτριος) on 26 October. [Greeks celebrate their name-days more publicly than their birthdays]. In the past relatives and friends used to fill long tables, gathering to enjoy the food and each other’s company until late. It is the custom that such arrangements are made and paid exclusively by the person who celebrates, but this would be out of the question now.
•    Some of Sophia’s customers used to arrange big orders for home delivery, well in advance before Christmas, New Year’s Eve, name-days, birthdays etc. Those orders were rather easy money since they involved only some cooking and not any waiting service. They used to come from regular customers, who now say that they have totally changed habits, avoiding inviting people at home.
•    The big ‘taverna days’ like Mardi Gras (Τσικνοπέμπτη), national bank-holidays (eg 25th March, 28th October, 1st May) when Sophia would host a great deal of customers making many orders have long gone. After years in business Sophia notes that the last three Mardi Gras were an absolute ‘disaster’. In the past years, well before the actual day of celebration, the restaurant phone would ring endlessly for bookings and the main concern for the owner was how to accommodate more tables in the restaurant’s limited space, and what to do with those who would come without having made a booking. In the last three years, business in those days is more like regular Sundays.
•    What seems not affected be the crisis, though, are the repasts after funerals or memorial services at the nearby cemetery. But even then, surreal negotiations over the price per head dominate the pre-funeral discussions between Sophia and the bereaved relative in charge of the arrangements. (In a recent story a lady whose mother had just passed away, insisted on having fresh fish – only fresh and nothing else – ‘the most expensive one, because the crisis has not touched us at all…’)

Sophia’s General Observations
•    The number of the customers has dropped significantly. ‘Business was never as bad as now. Every year is worse than the previous one’.
•    There are very few customers during the week. Only Sundays there is some good business, but even then the restaurant is not in full capacity.
•    A positive by-effect, is that at time of rising fuel prices, one does not feel the cold when working at the restaurant. The restaurant should be warm enough even when Sophia is not certain whether any customers will come appear. Although it costs a lot, at least both Sophia and the people who work for her appreciate the warmth and they do not have to go back to the cold apartments!
•    Sophia has had four very similar experiences in the last six months that she found very sad, when people – well-dressed and with upper class manners – asked whether there were any food leftovers. “We are hungry; if you want, give us something” Sophia recounts them asking her.
•    Sophia has stopped ordering meat from the local butcher. She now buys it from the supermarket, which is cheaper, and there is not need for ordering large amounts of meat anyway.
•    In the supermarket (Sophia is a regular customer at local Sklavenitis chain for 25 years now, paying a visit almost every day), people tend to do their shopping using baskets instead of trolleys and with shopping list – something that she had not noticed in the past.
•    It costs more for the restaurant to be authentic and distinctive in terms of quality – to order beef from Mt Pelion (Πήλιο), goat-meat from Messinia (Μεσσηνία), cheese from Arcadia (Αρκαδία).

last edited: 2 February 2014

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