Cafe owners shun smoking ban, say many kahvehanes may close down

smoking ban

The “kahvehane” — the traditional Turkish teahouse where whiskered men have smoked, drunk tea and played cards, backgammon and dominos for centuries — has seen better days.

If it was not enough that the worst economic crisis in the past 60 years has ravaged the country’s employment and consumption figures and driven down kahvehanes’ customer base by up to 50 percent, the smoking ban, which came into full effect last month, has caused an estimated loss of an additional 20 percent of customers. Even Ramadan, a period when the kahvehanes have historically experienced an explosion in business, does not seem to be providing any respite to the plummeting business.

The situation of kahvehane owners has deteriorated so badly in the aftermath of the smoking ban that they have threatened political action ranging from sit-ins to strikes or even hunger strikes if the government does not address their concerns.

Kahvehane owners are worried that if the government does not take action and loosen the rigidity of its present smoking ban, half of the over 100,000 kahvehanes across the country will be squeezed out of business, causing the ranks of the unemployed to swell by hundreds of thousands.

Kahvehanes have, since time immemorial, been the sanctuary of retired and unemployed Turkish men wishing to escape the stresses of everyday life. It’s therefore somewhat ironic that during this time of unprecedented unemployment — which now stands at 13.6 percent — these teahouses are not brimming with unemployed men whose numbers are expanding on an hourly basis. Instead, business is worse than ever.

İsa Güven, president of the Ankara Chamber of Coffeehouse Proprietors (AKO), told Sunday’s Zaman that business was down by upwards of 50 percent as a result of the crisis. The smoking ban, he said, has taken an additional 20 percent bite out of the industry. He said that it was hard to untangle the effects of the smoking ban from the effects of the crisis.

Estimates vary, but according to some, about 70 percent of Turkey’s adult male population smokes. In kahvehanes, those that Sunday’s Zaman spoke with said that almost 100 percent of the customer base smokes. “Our potential customers are smokers,” said Murat Ağaoğlu, president of the 100,000-strong Turkish Teahouses and Canteens Federation (TKKBF).

“Given these circumstances, no one can come to a kahvehane where there is a smoking ban,” he said.

He did not feel that the option of putting a few tables outside for men to smoke at, as has been the suggestion of many, was a particularly viable option. “If you put tables outside, the neighbors complain. Who wants to see a couple of tables crowded with a bunch of men playing cards and cigarettes online buy below their apartment?”

But if the government does not take immediate action to improve the situation, Güven said, upwards of 50 percent of kahvehanes face the risk of closing their doors permanently, which would lead to a startling jump in unemployment. Ağaoğlu said that in addition to the 100,000 kahvehanes registered with the TKKBF, an additional 100,000 kahvehanes are not registered with the TKKBF, and when these are factored into the equation, the number of people “earning their bread” from the kahvehane business could amount to well over a million.

Business never been worse

“Very, very, very, very bad,” is how Muharem Öz, an employee at Altınyol teahouse in Osmanbey described the situation when asked by Sunday’s Zaman how his business was holding up in the wake of the crisis and smoking ban. Standing in the doorway of a completely empty kahvehane with a litcamel cigarettes in his hand (the cigarette was outside the door), he said that in all of his many years in the business, things had never been worse. Next to him were two older men squatting on the sidewalk of the mainly residential street, puffing on cigarettes and nodding their heads in agreement.

Business was so bad, Öz claimed, that he was not even able to determine whether or not the smoking ban had contributed to a further drop in business. “It doesn’t matter,” he said when asked about the effects of the smoking ban. “There are no customers to drive away.”

According to him, Ramadan, a time when kahvehanes are traditionally smoke-filled dens overflowing with tea-drinking card players who stay there till the wee hours of the morning, has provided no relief: Business is down to alarming levels. “People just don’t have any money to come,” he said. This year, he said, Ramadan was less busy than even the worst of normal times of past years.

Mehmet Celik, a worker at an equally empty kahvehane in Beşiktas, reiterated much of Öz’s complaints, saying that Ramadan would not bring any respite to plummeting sales figures doubly hit by the crisis and the smoking ban. He said that one of his co-workers — there are only two people working in the shop — had been laid off at the beginning of the month. Unlike Öz, he said that the smoking ban had chipped away considerably at his kahvehane’s client base. “All of our clients smoke,” he said, “and now they stay home.” He was not very optimistic that once summer subsided and the cold and rain of the winter set in, business would pick up.

When asked what could be done to resolve the situation, he said: “Nothing. Kismet.There’s a crisis.”

Aren’t kahvehane owners citizens, too?

Not all are as fatalistic about the situation, however. Güven was one of 120 kahvehane chamber presidents who came together to help organize the massive Ankara rally last week in which an estimated 10,000 kahvehane owners from around the country came together to protest government actions. Their motto: “Aş, İş, Ekmek” (Food, Work, Bread).

He said they had presented a petition to the government asking for immediate action. He proposed the creation of smoking and non-smoking sections, separated by a partition with an air filter, or smoking and non-smoking kahvehanes.

If no actions are taken, kahvehane owners and workers have threatened to launch a one-week strike. Some have gone so far as to threaten hunger strikes.

“I am calling on political parties, through the newspapers, to discuss this matter in depth with us,” Güven told Sunday’s Zaman. “I want to remind everyone of what Prime Minister Erdoğan said: ‘The demands of our citizens are holy.’ Well I ask [Mr. Erdoğan]: Aren’t kahvehane owners citizens of Turkey as well? Kahvehane owners’ right to making a living is being taken away.”

He planned on making a political campaign out of the matter. “The way to the Parliament goes through the kahvehane,” he declared.

Ağaoğlu voiced similar concerns but was more sensitive to the governing party, which he praised for many of its other initiatives. “Of course, smoking is unhealthy — we respect many decisions by the government, and banning smoking is one of them. The only problem is that people in this sector are put in an unfair position by the imposition of a blanket indoor smoking ban.”

Ağaoğlu, who is also president of the Antalya Kahve Association, recounted a story of one downtrodden Antalya kahvehane owner who came to him in tears last week, saying that he was planning on turning his kahvehane to a kitchenware store. It’s unlikely that the other 50,000 kahvehanes at risk of bankruptcy will have this option.

“This regulation has finished the ‘kahvehane culture’,” said Güven, who noted that it is a culture that dated back to Ottoman times. “This old culture is now disappearing.” It remains to be seen whether Turkish wives, whose husbands have suddenly started spending a lot more time at home with their families, will be bidding the kahvehane culture good riddance or praying for the kahvehane culture to come back.


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