End of an era for Retiro's cafes

Family-run businesses forced to give up franchises to run traditional 'quioscos'

Cafés that ring the park's boating lake to change hands after City Hall hikes rental fees

A photograph of an old family-run quiosco alongside the boating pond in the Retiro park in Madrid.

For decades, the 11 cafes in Madrid's Retiro park have been family-run establishments, originally set up in the late 19th century as franchises to employees of the royal household. They started out selling lemonade and sugared anise.

But in November 2011 the owners of four of the quioscos, or chiringuitos, as they are called in Spanish, were told by Madrid City Hall that with the end of their 10-year concessions in December the previous year, their rent would be taking an almost 600-percent hike from around 10,000 euros to 45,000 euros a year.

The owners appealed against the decision but the courts have ruled in favor of City Hall. Last month the first of the four pulled down its shutters for the final time and is now awaiting a new owner.

"Do you see that lady there, next to the quiosco? That is my great grandmother," says Pablo Jimeno, pointing to a black-and-white photograph from the early 20th century.

He is the last of his family to run one of the emblematic green-painted establishments that mostly ring Retiro's boating lake, attracting customers to its outdoor tables throughout the year. "It's the end of an era," Jimeno says, as he tries to fight back the tears welling up in his eyes. With him were the owners of other quioscos, who will also soon be handing over their businesses.

In another quiosco, municipal workers who had come to collect the keys found that the owners were not there. "He's an old man, aged 72, and has been very badly affected by the decision," says Ana Corchero, the spokeswoman for the organization that represents quiosco owners in the city's parks. The workers decided to drill out the locks, and placed padlocks on the shutter before leaving.

A municipal workman breaks the lock to the door of a quiosco before padlocking it shut. / A. G.

Almudena Peña, another owner, explained that she had grown up in the park. "My cradle was an old ice refrigerator. My great-grandfather set up here in the 19th century." She too will soon be leaving.

Dionisio Ruiz, who works in another quiosco nearby, said that he had been in the park for 34 years. "Where are we supposed to go now? What are we supposed to do?" he asks.

The quiosqueros say that the new rent is not only abusive, but that it will be impossible to pay while still making a living. "How can we make that kind of money when all we serve is potato chips, beer and soft drinks?" asks Ana Corchero.

Municipal regulations forbid the quiosco owners from serving hot food. They are not even allowed to make sandwiches and rolls on the premises but must bring them in pre-prepared.

Pablo Jimeno says that only large companies that already run other franchises could afford to pay the rent that City Hall is demanding. "Some of the bids that have been put in talk about employing 18 waiters," he says.

Most establishments manage to get by with one or two waiters at present. City Hall explains that it is giving priority to offers that will employ the maximum number of people, as well as to those that are prepared to improve the premises.

However, given that the quioscos are listed buildings, the new franchise owners will have little margin to add their own stamp.

City Hall says that it cannot reveal the names of bidders for the new concessions until May. It also explained that the rent increase is as high as it is because the previous figure was based on estimates of the value of the land taken in 1988.

City Hall said in a press release that the quiosco owners were out of touch, and expected to be given preferential treatment because of their historic links to the park. "The Retiro is one of the finest parks in the world, so we want to have the finest quioscos," it read.

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