Financial crisis tests Spain's love of fiesta
Going out is part of the Spanish culture and some are determined to maintain it by opting for cheaper drinks and going out only over the weekend.
MADRID – It's 11:00pm in the Biotza bar and restaurant in Madrid's upscale Salamanca district and the place is bustling with dozens of office workers, couples and groups of friends kicking off the four-day Easter weekend in an exuberant mood.
Customers munch on tapas, tasty Spanish appetizers such as Iberico ham with mozzarella, fried squid, anchovies with goat cheese and green peppers or fried aubergines with honey – all washed down with wine or beer.
But where a few months ago it might have been standing room only, tonight there's still space at the bar and only a few of the 29 tables in the restaurant area are occupied.
"There are about 60 people here tonight, which is about 20 percent down on what we would expect on a night like this," complained Manuel de la Calle, head waiter at the smart modern eatery, located near some of central Madrid's designer boutiques.
The restaurant's profits have fallen about 10 to 15 percent in the last four months, he said, since the global crisis began to pummel the Spanish economy, already weakened by the collapse of the once-booming property market.
Today, the Biotza has cut prices to keep its clientele.
"This month we also started offering tapas in the restaurant area as well, instead of just at the bar," de la Calle added.
Biotza is not the only establishment facing hard times.
According to figures from the National Statistics Institute, sales in the food and beverage sector began falling in 2008. They were down 8.2 percent in December and 5.2 percent in January from a year earlier.
A poll published in the ABC newspaper in mid-April found 48 percent of people had cut spending on entertainment since the crisis. Roughly half those surveyed said they were spending less on food.
But in Spain, where late-night eating and drinking is so much a part of the culture – lunch can last until 5:00pm and dinner often does not get underway until at least 10:00pm, and can run into the early morning hours – the sector may be less badly hit than others.
"Going out is part of life in Spain, rather like in France," said Raul, a 38-year-old lawyer, having tapas at the Biotza with his wife, Susanne.
"So if you compare it to other ways of spending money, bars and restaurants are less affected. But where they used to have profits in double figures, now they are in single digits."
Susanne, a 34-year-old university lecturer, agreed.
"People here think, 'OK, so I don't have money, but what I have I can spend in a bar,'" she said.
Luis Adiego, the co-owner of La Cueva del Bolero, a cellar music club also in the Salamanca district, said the dropoff was more evident between Monday and Thursday.
"Before the crisis, people would go out every day. Now, they focus on the weekend," he said.
Biotza's de la Calle agreed, and said many of his customers were also switching from wine to beer, which is cheaper.
Cinema attendance is also suffering. Last year, 14.3 million people went to cinemas, down 1.4 million from 2007, according to the culture ministry.
A few bright spots
Still, winners are emerging from the new spirit of frugality.
As bars and table-clothed restaurants see their sales decline, fast-food establishments and takeaways are profiting as people opt for less expensive options.
That includes McDonald's, which reported its sales climbed almost 7.0 percent in 2008 in Spain – where it opened 17 new restaurants. Another US fast-food chain, BBQ Chicken, announced plans last month to open 30 eateries in the country.
For his part Carlos Padura, owner of the Diurno takeaway sandwich bar in Madrid's chic Chueca district, said his sales of food and beverages have been stable since the crisis.
But three other eateries on the same street have closed in the past six months, he said.
"The quality did not match their prices. In a time of crisis this becomes more noticeable," Padura said.
Spain slumped into its first recession in 15 years at the end of 2008. The country's unemployment rate hit 15.5 percent in February, the highest level in the 27-nation European Union.
The Bank of Spain has predicted it will reach 19.4 percent next year as the recession deepens.
"Everyone knows someone who has lost their job," Biotza customer Susanne said.
But for now, the party continues, albeit at a slower pace.
"Going out is going out," said Gonzalo, another Biotza customer. "The fiesta is the fiesta."
27 April 2009
AFP / Denholm Barnetson / Expatica