Wanted: €1 Espresso for Registered Tallinn Residents (47)

(Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Scanpix)
Patric Coudenhove
4/29/2014 3:40 PM
Category: Opinion

Many of Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar's initiatives have involved creating parallel infrastructures and offering fairly threadbare freebies that aren't really free lunches. As long as he's pursuing this line, there's one important stimulus he could consider, and that's regulating the price of coffee at cafes. 

As anyone who has been to hip north Tallinn knows, creatives are driving the transformation, with coffee being an important input commodity in the turnaround. Indeed, apart from exporting some electronics when the Nordic economies happen to be healthy, the capital region's economy appears to be driven by people sitting at Macbooks and drinking coffee.

I feel that Savisaar stands to increase his popularity among an urbanite segment that tends to be opposed to him, while stimulating - quite literally - Tallinn's creative industries-based economy.

**

Italian officials realized the benefits of coffee price regulation early on in the 20th century, and a very specific and active type of cafe culture blossomed. Today Italy is one of the wealthier countries in Europe, yet a single shot of a personally prepared beverage costs only €1, even in many places in the north. Some cultural pundits have even argued that this is one of the factors that makes the country something more than the sum of its parts (lots of antiquities, uncompetitive high-end light industry). Alcoholism is virtually unknown in the south; instead of half the village clutching 2L plastic bottles of Bear beer, there's at best one grizzled maintenance drinker having a 33 cl Peroni, and even he's chasing it with an €0.90 espresso and will soon be on his feet on the bar arguing politics.

Yet in Estonia, where GDP is far lower, coffee prices are pushing €2. They exceed even sit-down prices of a coffee in Italy. Everyone knows this is wrong. Ground coffee is only a minor component in the cost price per cup. Although cafe rents aren't cheap, and the "free WiFi" router also costs the cafe something, a single prepared coffee should not cost 50 percent or more of a retail 500-gram pack of ground coffee. A brazen bourgeois capitalism is overshadowing Bohemian socialism in Tallinn. If allowed to continue, it will start imperiling digital nomad lifestyles and make hipsters socially vulnerable.

Coffee culture could also use improvement. More often than not, it is a push-button affair - remote and impersonal, like service tends to be. That, too, goes against the spirit of espresso, which is hand-tamped and made "special for you."

Pricing is also distorted. The amount of coffee in an espresso is theoretically the same as in an Estonian masinakohv (a caffè crema or extra long espresso), yet sometimes a more concentrated masinakohv is priced as a premium product. And the price of a double espresso in Tallinn is, again more often than not, simply double whatever exorbitant price was charged for a single. 

Savisaar should consider forcefully entering the cafe market in Tallinn by fixing prices and mandating the use of real espresso machines  Masinakohv could be a sit-down option with a ceiling at €1.50. But an €1 stand-up espresso option should also be offered throughout the city, with a doppio also at €1.50 (not €2). If funding cover is needed, disposable cups could be more heavily taxed. 

I've always hoped Savisaar, deep down, despite a rather dour exterior, is a Mediterranean type, more Berlusconi than Putin. (Maybe the real reason he is drawn to Putin's party is because Putin is a little like Mussolini. It is complicated.) That is what the famous rose clenched in his teeth means to me, a man who takes pleasure in la bellezza and fine things. This is after all the man who, along with Aleksander Kofkin, once introduced Tallinners to the delights of Vienna sausages, with a network of kiosks across the city center. Actually, that's a terrible example, but still, it was "Vienna Sausage," not "Novosibirsk Burger," wasn't it. Why can't Savisaar bring his social municipal policies to the city's price-gouging coffee joints?

(Patric Coudenhove is a creative professional based in Tallinn and Helsinki who runs on coffee. Open Mic is a new section where readers can chime in on more local and personal topics.)

 

 


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