Crunchtime for Kiev's coffee trucks as city cracks down

KIEV: They serve it out of vans, buses and even a fleet of bright pink snails in Kiev, coffee is everywhere. But these ubiquitous coffee stands could soon become a rarity as city hall mounts a crackdown which many fear could put them out of business.

The Ukrainian capital is a coffee-lovers’ paradise, with the streets dotted with more than 1,500 trucks serving drinks to a city with a growing love of caffeine.

But officials in Kiev have recently tightened the regulations, increasing red tape and running costs for these roadside baristas in a move which could put many of them out of business.

Maxim Rozhin had been selling coffee for 18 months when officials turned up and seized the vehicle without any explanation.

“It was 4:00 pm. The truck was parked when about 10 people arrived. They surrounded it and took it away,” the 34-year-old told AFP.

Rozhin said he had submitted all the necessary documents to operate his coffee truck but said the authorities “were asking for more” namely, a sticker ‘proving’ that he had gone through a newly-established auction procedure in order to be able to trade there.

In August, new regulations came into force requiring coffee truck owners to bid for the rights to sell at a certain spot, in a move the city hopes will help fill its coffers.

“If we want Kiev to be a European city, then there needs to be clear regulations,” Kiev Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said in a statement.

“Coffee trucks and kiosks cannot just set up wherever they want and not contribute to the budget.”

So far, more than 230 spots have been sold in two rounds of actions, with prices running from 4,388 to 361,000 hryvnias ($200 to $16,000/175 to 14,500 euros) per spot, city hall said.

Until the new measures came in to place, traders paid nothing and only a small amount in tax, with city hall earning a modest 500,000 hryvnias ($22,000/20,000 euros) from the coffee business over the past three years.

Now it is expecting to bring in millions.

– Part of the landscape –

Coffee trucks first appeared on the streets of the Ukrainian capital in 2008 and since then, they have become part and parcel of the urban landscape.

Prior to the new regulations, coffee sellers could operate as long as they met hygiene standards, had a properly-equipped vehicle and registered with city hall.

During the 2014 protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square that toppled the pro-Russian government of former president Viktor Yanukovych, and sparking the events that led to the war in the east, the vans took centre stage, providing refreshments to freezing demonstrators camped out at the site.

The trucks are hugely popular, serving up a wide range of coffees to a loyal public.

“Everyone has his own regular customers,” said Rozhin.

“Everyone earns a little bit and everyone is happy.”

But since the city began cracking down, many say they won’t be able to pay the new costs and could go out of business.

The prospect has sparked an angry response from business owners and the general public.

“200,000 or 300,000 hryvnias? Those are unrealistic numbers!” charged Vitaly Gorski who heads the local coffee truck association at a recent protest outside city hall.

Indignant truck drivers have also protested outside city hall against regulations they have denounced as illegal.

– An illegal move? –

Lawyer Andrii Domanski also believes the crackdown is illegal, saying only federal lawmakers have the right to change the regulations for individual business owners.

“The authorities’ actions are aimed at destroying small and medium-sized businesses,” he told AFP.

So far, however, no-one has challenged the regulations in court.

Despite the changes, some enterprising locals are determined to forge ahead with plans to cash in on Kiev’s coffee craze as the Ukrainian economy slowly edges out of recession.

Valentin Rizhnikov is one of them. After working for someone who owned a coffee truck for the past year, this 22-year-old decided to open his own business, doing all the preparatory work and renting a vehicle. And now he is reluctant give it up on the idea, despite the fact he may lose everything.

“It’s tough to fear that everything can be taken from you,” he told AFP.

“Everything is hanging by a thread.”





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