Day in the Life: The Muradyan family, the cafe owners

Mother, father and older daughter at work at the cafe on Friday. 25 January 2019.
Mother, father and older daughter at work at the cafe on Friday. 25 January 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

The days are often long, and things can get very busy, especially during the lunch rush, but nothing is more satisfying than plates all but licked clean coming back to the kitchen, and our wonderful and supportive customers. And, of course, working together as a team. We are the Muradyan family, and we are the owners and sole employees of Cafe Smile in Tartu.

Our day begins at 7 o'clock in the morning. Like many other families, we start our day off with a cup of coffee, but unlike most other families, we have it at our family-owned cafe, not at home. Rafik, or Papa, goes out and starts the car right away so it warms up, and then we all head out the door. But we have to sneak out quietly, or the family dog will wake up and want to come with us. Our older brother, who is 26, started being pressured for grandchildren, and then brought the dog home one day and said, "Here is your grandchild." But the dog is actually more like the youngest sibling. There are four of us in total.

When we get to the cafe, we unlock the doors, get the electric kettle going, and then sit down and have coffee and baklava; it just doesn't feel right if we don't start the day with coffee and baklava. Since we don't have a big pantry at the cafe, we will make a list of any ingredients we still need and didn't buy the night before. Shushanik, or Mama, starts making bread dough from scratch so that fresh bread will be ready by lunchtime. Papa will take time before we open to clean and fix anything that needs fixing. Alyona, who is 23, will clean the areas of the cafe she is responsible for.

The real rush begins just before noon, as we start serving the daily lunch special at 11:30; referring to Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings, Alyona calls the half hour before this the deep breath before the plunge. Sometimes we will have a line already at this point, because people have a limited amount of time to eat and be back at work. But we want our customers to be satisfied with their meal. There is no exact science to how we decide what we will serve as a lunch special; the night before, we'll sit down and ask everyone what someone is interested in cooking. Sometimes we have a plan and then end up changing it if we can't find something we need for it at the supermarket. This happens sometimes, as Estonia just has different ingredients available than in Georgia or Armenia.

The lunch rush lasts through 3 in the afternoon. Papa will ask us then how the food tasted, and we'll all laugh that we don't know, because we didn't get to try any ourselves. But the plates come back to the kitchen completely empty, which is the most important thing. Mama says that she isn't interested in eating food she has cooked herself anyway; she would rather eat food cooked by someone else, which is the exact opposite of both Alyona and our grandmother, or Tatik. Tatik used to work in the kitchen at the cafe as well.

After the lunch rush, things quiet down for a few hours. Everyone in the family does a little of everything at the cafe, including cooking, cleaning, slicing the bread, and serving customers. We also make sure that Alyona has time to work on her studies, as she is taking online psychology courses through a British school. The good thing about owning our own cafe and being its sole employees is that we can be flexible if someone needs extra time to study, or time off to travel, like our brother, who is currently in Georgia.

The good thing about such trips, of course, is that we can bring back herbs, spices and other ingredients from there that just aren't the same in Estonia. It's just not possible to perfectly replicate Armenian or Georgian dishes here, because things like meat and even nuts will taste different, but we try. We just reopened after expanding our cafe in January, and the plan is to expand our kitchen next, including installing an authentic mangal, or Middle Eastern barbecue. Then we can update our menu to include true shashlik and kebab dishes which just aren't possible right now. Alyona has also been working on a favourite fish recipe that we're hoping to add to the menu sometime this spring.

From Armenia to Estonia

Papa, an ethnic Armenian, was born and lived the first years of his childhood in Georgia, before moving to his family's homeland, where Mama was born and raised. We lived a relatively good life there, and owned a restaurant for 20 years; Tatik worked there too. Papa also had a dangerous job working in law enforcement, which he did for 18 years. But corruption was rampant in Armenia, and a growing problem, and it was not safe for us to stay there anymore. By now things in Armenia are changing, thank God, but things don't change that quickly either; it takes a long time. Papa and Mama arrived in Estonia via the Netherlands in November 2011, and Tatik and the children arrived in April 2012.

Some people have asked us why not France, or Germany, for example. Estonia is a small country, but it is safe and stable, and has everything a family really needs. And since Russian was one of the languages our family spoke, we realized we could get by in Estonia speaking Russian at first, until we were able to start learning the Estonian language. This was true especially in Jõhvi, a predominantly Russian-speaking city in Northeastern Estonia where we first lived.

Once, soon after we got the news that our family had been granted the right to stay in Estonia, Mama came to Tartu to help out at a short-staffed restaurant as a favour for a friend, and quickly realized that everyone spoke Estonian and she couldn't understand anything. One employee, however, spoke Russian, and started teaching her what she needed to know. At the end of the day, her friend came to pick her up, and she asked her friend, "What does 'Ruttu-ruttu-ruttu!' mean?" Because all she could remember hearing all day was "Quickly, quickly, quickly!" Her hands were so tired she could barely sign the family's legal paperwork afterward.

The secret to success

When we first arrived in Estonia, it was hard for us. Papa obviously couldn't work in law enforcement as he had before, and our older siblings couldn't attend university because they didn't speak Estonian. We thought of opening our own cafe here too, and our friends who ate our food always asked when we'd open our own restaurant, because it was rude to come visit and eat our food as often as they'd like. But we didn't have the money. But here is our family secret, how we have ended up so successful in such a short time — usually every member of a family does their own thing; one person wants to do one thing, another another thing, and a third something else entirely. But we all look toward one goal together. We sit down and decide everything together. And we worked toward this goal together too.

Papa and our brother worked for a company restoring things like old doors and windows, including the Old Anatomicum building at the University of Tartu. Papa was such a perfectionist at this job that people would ask if he had done this work in Armenia; he would laugh and say that he did, but he restored people, not old windows. They both later worked at a cement factory too, until they couldn't anymore for health-related reasons. Mama worked first at a restaurant, and later in the canteen at a Russian-language school. She picked up a part-time position at Selver as well, where she could practice her Estonian skills by talking to customers. When Alyona graduated upper secondary school, then we realized it was time to make our cafe dream a reality, because it would not be easy to find other work, and because it would be easier for us personality-wise to be our own bosses.

We looked for years, but prices were high, and so were realtor fees. Searching online, we came across an ad for a space on Riia Street that was being sold directly by its owner and came running. It was on the small side, but it would do for us at the time, and it already had a kitchen installed. Our clients at the beginning also commented on how small it was, but we have more room and light now that we have expanded into the space next door as well, which extends our cafe all the way to the corner. Things are still hard, and some months money is tighter than others, but our clients are wonderful, and they are the most important thing. We know exactly who prefers their soup hot and who prefers it warm, and what other clients' favourite dishes are. Some of them come in like clockwork.

Mama doesn't like those days when she's stuck in the kitchen more often than not; she'd prefer to have more time to talk to our customers. We're used to speaking Estonian, English and Russian on a daily basis with our customers, but since we are located right by the Baltic Defence College, we have soldiers come in from Finland, Canada, America, Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania, and hear all kinds of languages sometimes. Papa worries sometimes that we are always so busy, and sometimes he doesn't even really have time to talk to Mama; by the time we sit in the car to go home for the night, everyone is already tired, and at home we just make something quick to eat before going to bed. We have 36 dishes on our menu, but as they say, the cobbler's children have no shoes. Sometimes it happens that the second we try to dish up something to eat for ourselves during the workday, as soon as we take a bite, more clients will walk in, kind of our own Murphy's law. But we all agree that good customers and grateful diners make it all worth it.

Late nights

The dinner rush begins at around 6 in the evening. On most nights we will close at 8, but on Fridays and Saturdays we are open through 10 at night. Sometimes we will be ready to lock up at 8 and then realize Mama is missing, only to find her still in the kitchen, making phyllo dough. There are so many different types of doughs we need to make from scratch, and it all takes so much time. But we also need to get to the store. And grocery shopping sometimes means going to more than one store, because one ingredient will only be available at one store and another ingredient only at another. Last week we only got out the door at the cafe at 9:30 at night and still made it to three different supermarkets before close.

By the time we get home, everyone is usually very tired. After spending much of the day at home alone, Tatik usually wants to tell us all about her day and just talk in general. Mama makes time to sit with our younger sister, who is still studying in upper secondary school. She is having a hard time with mathematics, but that was Mama's favourite subject back in school. Mama earned good grades as a child, and actually hoped to attend university and become a medical professional or geography teacher someday. Our sister is earning top marks in Estonian and English, but none of us can help her with her German studies. Between us we speak a lot of different languages, but unfortunately German is not one of them. Our younger sister has dreams of becoming a fashion designer someday. Papa calls her our Estonian, as in, "Look, there goes our Estonian!" She was the youngest when we left Armenia, and has picked up the most Estonian mannerisms and views out of all of us. She's also very ambitious. Once we were discussing a news article we had seen about how the world could have its first trillionaire by 2040, and she looked up suddenly and said, "That will be me."

The cafe is closed on Sundays, and that is our day to rest. We will usually be up at around 9 in the morning, and have breakfast at noon. Everyone has time to do whatever they want or need to do, including cleaning around the apartment, walking the dog, and working out. We will have a late lunch, around 4 in the afternoon, and then prepare a big dinner, usually soup of some kind. Our younger sister or brother or Papa will pick out a film for us to watch together, either before or after dinner. Sometimes the film will include a scene where they eat, and then we'll have to pause the film and go grab some fruit to snack on. And then it's already time for bed again, as we are up at 7 the next morning.

Charity is a lifestyle

If you work for someone else, then you go to work, go home, and are able to rest. If you own your own business, however, then it's nonstop: you sleep, wake up, and start thinking about how to advertise, whether or not you'll get any clients... This idea that you can run your own business and be able to relax more is a myth. Sometimes we are asked by friends how much money we make, if we make a lot. When they see our brother's work with the nonprofit he started to send test strips and other supplies for people with diabetes to children in Armenia, then they really start saying well we must make good money.

But charity is a lifestyle. Even if you don't have a lot to give, you can still choose to help people around you, especially those that are not as well off as you. Our brother sold his car for money to send more supplies to the children in Armenia, and tip jar money from the cafe also goes to his nonprofit as well. And while Estonia has its Health Insurance Fund, if we ever see that somebody here is in need of help for healthcare or something, we will help where we can too. Another humble dream of all of ours that we are working toward is a house of our own, as we've just outgrown our family flat.

Since moving to Estonia, Papa and our brother have become calmer in nature. Mama and Alyona, meanwhile, are the exact opposite, and have become more active in nature. In Armenia, Alyona was somewhat the family princess, but when we came to Estonia, the princess went to work stacking bread boxes at Maxima in order to help raise money for the goal of opening a cafe. She also hopes to become a famous psychologist, helping women in countries where they need the most help. Regardless of one's financial status, it is important to remember that goals are free.

Another thing we consider important is valuing a person for who they are, not based on what work they do — regardless of whether they are rich and famous or work in customer service. And that includes knowing our own worth as well. Our younger sister came home from school once and, shocked, said, "Mama, cleaners make the least money of all! How can that be? They do the dirtiest work! They should be paid the most out of everyone!" And someone who cleans for a living is no less worthwhile than someone who is wealthy. If we work at a cafe, that is our job, not a reflection of our souls. Similarly, if one of us is bad at mathematics, that doesn't mean we aren't smart or stop us from knowing seven languages, for example.

Estonia as home

A few years ago, Papa, who was even a two-time boxing champion back in Armenia, opened his own self-defence school here in Tartu. It didn't end up working out, because you need to speak the language well enough to teach the students theory as well. But he took Estonian lessons at Folkuniversitetet, where everyone else were Russian-speakers. He would have to think in Armenian first, then translate to Russian, then to Estonian in his head, which was difficult. And he doesn't have enough time all the time to study more, or practice speaking it with friends and customers more. The last time he took his B1 language exam, he was just three points shy of passing. He keeps telling our younger sister to talk to him in Estonian, to which she responds, "Jaa, isa, OK." We do speak Armenian at home, but she is starting to forget Armenian already. At this point, she sometimes speaks a mix of something like five languages.

But we are happy here. The Estonian state and Estonian people have been so very helpful to us, and we are very grateful for this. People helped us even when we didn't have a plate or fork of our own to our name. And while sometimes we miss Armenia, we have nothing left there anymore. We have everything in Tartu: our own business, the cafe, Estonian friends, our flat, and even good neighbours. There is a saying in Armenian that one good neighbour is worth more than ten relatives, because if you are ever in trouble, a neighbour will reach you faster. Most importantly, we have our family. Papa says he would rather have five cents to his name and be with his family than €1,000 in his pocket but be working far away in another country.

When you read the news every day, the world seems to have become a meaner, more aggressive place. We are worried that people aren't more concerned with how the person standing next to them is doing. Mama recently read a story on Facebook about an old lady who slipped and fell on the ice in Tartu that nobody helped up until a young man stopped to help her. But there are also lots of good people in Estonia, and we have made many friends here, so many that it's difficult to message everyone on important days like Independence Day. Papa is the only one of us who will eat blood sausage, but we love dishes like Estonian-style sauerkraut and Mulgi porridge. And everyone is happy to help us improve our Estonian language skills. At this point, Papa considers himself 70% Armenian and 30% Estonian.

One day, Papa noticed that a large Estonian flag had fallen into the road in front of our cafe — but nobody was stopping! They were just driving over it. So he ran out into the busy road, and motioned for the cars to stop. And he rescued the flag. A few drivers signalled thank you. We took it home, but we want to bring it back to the cafe to display together with a Georgian flag and an Armenian flag. Because this is our home now too.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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