Business

The Budapest cafe perking up a former red light district

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionHungary cafe

It's Tuesday night and the Lumen Cafe in Budapest's 8th district is jumping.

In the main room a three piece band called AMP is playing their own brand of experimental jazz - piano, drums, and double bass.

The crowd is mainly young, but there are plenty of greying beards too - including that of the co-owner, Peter Laszlo.

"It's very important for me that this is a community space, as well as a cafe," Peter explains.

The cafe's bar overlooks Kalman Mikszath square, named after a late 19th Century writer and politician. His statue stands in the corner, gazing towards the cafe, as though trying to work out who's playing tonight.

Inside, it's a joyous, lively scene and underlines how far this small business has come since it started in 2008.

Financial storm

Peter had plucked up the courage to quit his job at an advertising agency - only to find himself launching a venture at the precise time a financial storm was about to wreck economies and companies around the globe.

He and three partners stumped up €15,000 (£10,600; $16,000) to get the business off the ground. They steered clear of banks and other institutions to retain their independence.

Image caption Live music has become a regular feature at the Lumen Cafe

Somehow Lumen has survived - and even prospered - despite what he describes as excessive bureaucracy.

Peter shakes his head, thinking back.

"I thought having a small cafe would be fun and relaxing - no stress," he says, smiling wryly.

"I had to learn reality is a little bit different. It worked - with a lot of work and sacrifice."

Sentiments every small business owner will recognise. But not every budding entrepreneur has had to go to the same lengths as Peter.

Research led him to a specific coffee roasting machine that met his exacting requirements. There was one drawback: it was a 30-hour drive away in Izmir, Turkey. But he wouldn't let that stand in his way. He made the journey with some friends, no doubt fuelled by copious amounts of coffee.

Image caption The Lumen Cafe now sells coffee, wine, craft beers and stationery

Getting the roaster back to Budapest took almost twice as long. Red tape at border crossings caused much delay and frustration.

But the effort - and the roaster - has stood him in good stead. Lumen was one of the first cafes in Budapest to import and roast beans.

Tuning in to profits

Peter has built on that reputation to help the business expand into other areas. It now sells craft beers, clothing and stationery. It's even got its own wine wholesale operation.

But music - like the live performance of AMP at the cafe - is an increasingly important part of the business.

"We have a really interesting concert programme going on," Peter explains. Musical styles alternate between modern experimental music and Hungarian folk, he says.

Image caption Lumen has become a thriving focal point in Budapest's regenerated 8th district

"On the one hand it's progress; on the other hand it's traditional."

Lumen is part of wider change galvanising the city's historic 8th district.

Bullet holes still pock the walls of the nearby Piarist college, where resistance fighters opened fire on Soviet troops in the square below during the 1956 revolution - a revolution that began only two streets away.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the 8th district got left behind when the rest of the inner city grew rapidly. Parts of the 8th gained a reputation for prostitution, hard drugs and violence.

"This was not a very fancy neighbourhood. It was a rather forgotten part of Budapest's downtown," says Peter.

'I always hope'

But the last few years have seen real change in the area - partly thanks to new businesses like Lumen.

"Young families started moving in, taking advantage of the lower property prices," he says.

Now the cafe provides a taste of prosperity in a rapidly changing area.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hungary's small businesses are helping to boost economic growth

The next stage in the growth of his business will be to expand the roasting capacity - such is the demand for his ground beans at other cafes.

At the moment, the coffee is roasted at the top of a rickety staircase in a room overlooking the clothes and wine shop. But the next move is to set up a special roasting shop and service for clients.

Lumen seems to be on the cusp of a wave.

But has it made him rich? I pose the question over yet another cup of coffee.

"I'm happy that the business continues to expand, slowly, despite the fact that the economic environment in Hungary is not improving," he says cautiously.

"But I always hope - soon I will be rich!"