Ladies Who Lunch

All aboard for karbonade and potatoes!

All aboard for karbonade and potatoes!

SIGNS of economic well-being may not be too much in evidence on the macro scale beloved of economists but there are a few encouraging things on the micro level, otherwise known as “real life.”

Perhaps the best one I’ve seen recently is a tale of two cafes located fifty metres apart from each other on the Pardaugava side of Riga’s Akmens bridge.

Named “Kugitis” and “Bulvaris” (“Little Ship” and “Boulevard”) both appear to be providing object lessons in how to run successful businesses during a crisis. Both are also characterised by a willingness to innovate, a clear understanding of who their clientele is and an attention to detail that many larger enterprises should learn from.

Kugitis has been established the longer of the two. Simple, clean and light with interesting pictures of the Daugava bridges on the wall and even a couple of bespoke stained glass windows depicting Courland’s former maritime glory, Kugitis provides filling and fresh food at keen prices. But as well as that, it’s experimented with some interesting price incentives.

One saw food prices drop by 10% at 3pm, 20% at 4pm and 30% at 5pm – a great way to get hard-pressed pensioners etc through the doors for a hot meal, while simultaneously reducing the amount of waste at the end of the day.

Kugitis also seems to have signed some sort of deal with the trendy Index Cafe a mile away in the city centre to take a daily rack of French sticks and a few homemade cakes (I recommend the honey one) to broaden its product range and cater for people in the mood for coffee and cake rather than a full meal.

Bulvaris has risen from the depths

Bulvaris has risen from the depths

Just around the corner, Bulvaris used to be a bit of dive but is now under new management. Completely refurbished, it’s also clean and smart without being pretentious. It bakes cakes and pastries on the premises, making an early morning stop advisable to get them just as they come out of the oven.

The clearest example of this rare contemporary example of a capitalism that actually works is the price war the two cafes have embarked on over their daily set menu. Prices have been falling on a weekly basis. Where a set meal of soup, main course and drink for 2 lats used to seem like an extraordinary bargain, the price has been beaten down to just 1.60 for a proper belt-strainer. The quality of the food has been unaffected by the cost cutting, probably because punters who don’t like the look of one menu can simply walk around the corner to see what’s on offer at the other place.

Not surprisingly, both cafes are busy. It’s hard to find a free table at lunchtimes and all this is happening on the “wrong” side of the river. Walk to the other side of the bridge and you could expect to pay at least double in the Old Town.

Another thing worth noting is that both cafes appear to be entirely female-run establishments. No-nonsense but polite staff are constantly busy. Everyone knows their responsibilities and takes them seriously.

In Bulvaris I watched as the cook came out of the kitchen every few minutes with a small saucer of stock which the owner would sample, recommend a little more this or little less that and send back to the kitchen. The process as repeated several times until the stock was just right.

It would probably be lazy and quite sexist attach too much significance to the fact that women run these places, but I’m going to do so anyway. The owners are focussed on how to make the business work in a sustainable way, not how to seem flash or impressive. All too often in Latvian history it is the women who have cleared up the mess made by the men.

Most of the more impressive and intelligent public figures in Latvia today are women, not men. There are quite a few women running big businesses in Latvia but there are no female oligarchs (at least there are none who don’t happen to be married to a male oligarch).

Maybe all that needs to be done is to ask Mara to step down from her pedestal on the Freedom Monument and put the women in charge. They could hardly do a worse job running the country and if they show half the skill of the women running Kugitis and Bulvaris so successfully, Latvia need have no fear of the future.

Until recently there was a third choice for lunch. Called “Pie Admirala” (“Admiral’s Place”) it opened up opposite Kugitis. It was a bar/cafe by day and a nightclub in the evenings, though signs in its windows had initially advertised it, somewhat bizarrely, as a forthcoming country music club.

It had designer furniture, loudspeakers and doormen in long leather coats. It made a few half-hearted attempts to offer a meal of the day, but was keener on promoting how cheap its booze was. They paid a security guard to visit offices nearby (including my own) and tell everyone what a good place it was.

Each morning the detritus of the previous evening’s revels littered the small patch of pavement outside that wasn’t occupied by the big shiny car of the proprietor or the aforementioned feral doorman.

Pie Admirala was everything that Kugitis and Bulvaris are not: big, flash, loud, expensive and very macho. I never went inside.

It lasted about four months.

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