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Feature: Tallinn cafes face challenging times during emergency situation

Social distancing signs at Röst cafe in Rotermann City.
Social distancing signs at Röst cafe in Rotermann City. Source: Helen Wright/ ERR

When the emergency situation was introduced in Estonia to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many businesses closed their doors - but not all. ERR News has spoken to cafe owners, who would usually rely on passing trade, commuters and tourists to keep them busy, about how they have coped during this difficult time.

ERR News contacted four different venues in Tallinn: Röst, Ülo, City Kohviteek, and Faehlmanni Kohvik to ask how have they have coped so far and what has changed during the last 10 weeks. All four are small independent cafes which have proved popular with tourists in the past.

Röst, in the Rotermani Quarter, is the only cafe which stayed open throughout the emergency situation which started on March 12. Ülo, in the Telliskivi district, west of the city center, Faehlmann´s cafe on the street of the same name in central Tallinn, and City Kohviteek, on Pärnu mnt, have all been closed for some time during the past nine weeks, and now need to find ways to survive the challenging times ahead.

Due to the risk of spreading the virus, the requirements for disinfecting cafes are strict. Managers of all cafes confirmed they have been following the rules, and the standards in Estonian cafes are high generally as well.

The main differences now are following the 2+2 rule and disinfecting the premises more regularly. All of the business have made disinfectant available to clients.

Owner of Röst, Sander Allmere, said the requirements during normal times are quite stringent in any case, and that the rules haven't affected them as much as they could have.

"The rules are actually less strict than in many places around the world. The responsibility is just as much on the clients, and I quite like this. The rules haven´t affected us, but client behavior has [changed]," he said.

But he added they have been disinfecting the cafe to an almost paranoid level.

Owner of City Kohviteek, Ivar Paidla, agreed, saying as an experienced traveler, the requirements for disinfecting the cafes are quite strict in Estonia.

"Not only in developing countries, but in Europe as well, dogs and cats are allowed in some cafes, but it's not so common in Estonia. The requirements are strict," Paidla said.

Speaking about installing disinfectant points in the cafe, he said: "We used to have them in restrooms, but now we have brought them closer to the clients. The situation doesn't have an impact on the kitchen side, but rather on the cafe side."

Manager at Ülo, Triinu Teder, said: "The employers disinfect everything the customers touch, and we are following the 2+2 rule."

Ülo in Kalamaja. Source: Ülo

Customer numbers have halved, or worse

The number of visitors to every cafe have fallen since the pandemic began, but some have been affected more than others.

Owner of Faehlmann´s cafe Monica Kitsing said: "When the emergency situation was established, we lost about 90 percent of our customers. But people are still coming; we opened on May 1, and those people who had been waiting, did come - [we have] about 50 percent of the regular amount of visitors now."

Commenting on Röst's situation, Allmere said: "When the 2+2 rule was established, we lost 50 percent of our clients. But most of the locals are still coming to the cafe. At the moment, we have lost the tourists which makes up about 30 percent."

At City Kohviteek, the situation is different. "There are basically no clients here. Some of the regular customers still come, but we have lost 80 percent of custom," owner Ivar Paidla said.

Forty percent of the regular, pre-crisis amount of clients visit Ülo now, the cafe estimates.

Regarding a change in customer behavior, the situation is not as different as the owners had expected.

Ülo's manager Triinu Teder said people who are wary during the pandemic simply don't visit cafes. Those who do mostly act normally, as they would have done in pre-crisis days, but still follow the required rules.

Sander Allmere at Röst said that: "People wait outside in lines. And we don't let them sit inside if there are no places. Clients keep the required distance, but we have always dealt with a large proportion of takeaways, and, I think now, this makes up 80 percent of all the sales.

"What I've noticed is that people don't want to wear protective masks. To be honest, employers don't want to wear them either. At first, we were unsure of how the clients were going to behave. We thought they would order takeaways or sit outside, but they're actually sitting inside as well, while maintaining their distance."

Coffee machine. Source: Kevin Butz/Unsplash

Staff and menus often reduced

Ülo and City Kohviteek have been forced to lay off some of their employees and reduce salaries. However, Röst and Faehlamanni say they did not need to do either.

About half of the usual number of employees are currently working at some of the cafes. "We used to have five people working every day, now the number is three. But the workload has decreased," Allmere said of Röst's situation.

This has also fallen to a minimum in City Kohviteek. "Of course, we had the reduce salaries because there's is basically no work at the moment," Ivar Paidla commented.

While Röst and City Kohviteek didn't make any changes to their menus, Ülo and Faehlmann have reduced their menu choices by approximately 60 percent.

"We were in a position that if we had needed to change anything, we would have had to close the cafe," Sander Allmere said, adding that the situation didn't worry them, however, and they were trying to make the best of it.

The family-owned Ülo is also trying to focus on the future. "We are hoping that the rules will be relaxed, but if not, we will manage," Triinu Teder said.

Speaking about Faehlmann´s cafe, Monica Kitsing said that: "We haven't had a very stressful time. If we didn't have any extra funds, then we probably would have had one. But knowing that you are responsible for 20 people is already stressful enough as it is.

"However, I think that because the situation came closer to the summer, it's easier than if it had happened during the wintertime, when it would have been much harder. We weren't forced to keep the cafe open. We are able to take care of our workers and ourselves. I think cafes that did find themselves in such a position have had a very stressful time. We will see how people react when the emergency situation is over, and if they start coming to the cafe again."

City Kohviteek owner Ivar Paidla said he is not sure if establishing an emergency situation has been necessary.

He said: "I don't know anybody who knows anybody who's been sick, but I know dozens and dozens of people who have been financially affected by the emergency situation. I don't know if this has all been necessary."


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Editor: Helen Wright, Andrew Whyte

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