THE MILL: How to gentrify your café in ten easy steps

Speciality coffee! Avocados! Muesli! Scandinavian styled interior design! If these keywords get your metaphorical tail waggling, then maybe “The Mill” – coffee shop by day, wine and tapas bar in the evening – is your kind of place. Do bring some money and try not to think too much about how “The Mill” might also be contributing to the rapid, destructive gentrification that is taking over Lisbon. That being said, they do serve a damn good coffee. If you are interested in setting up your own gentrified coffee shop as well, we’ve made a ten-step guide for you, taking “The Mill” as a prototype.img_7255

  1. When you look for a place to “nest” your coffee shop in, make sure to either go for the center of town where rents have skyrocketed and you won’t have any of the locals to deal with anymore. That, or place yourself just outside of the heart of town and pretend like you belong more in the real touristic center. Like “The Mill” for example. The owner Paul Miller, originally from Australia, had been living in London for the last 15 years and had been coming to Lisbon frequently for quite a while when he finally decided to settle here. Because the center of town would be too expensive and according to Miller in this Observador article, the neighborhood of Santa Catarina is “growing”, he decided to open “The Mill” in the fantastic Poço dos Negros street, home to Lisbom’s favorite Cape Verdian restaurant “Tambarina”img_7240
  2. Name and concept-wise, make sure to use a homey, nostalgic kind of name that doesn’t really describe what you do but is neutral enough for everybody to project their own romantic ideas of “going back to the source of things” upon. With a name like “The Mill” (nice reference also to the owner’s name), you should invest in a baker and have them make original, but rather pointless cakes. For example: their watercress cake, once had, two days later already forgotten, was capably fluffy and gorgeously green but also lacking any distinct flavor worth remembering.
  3. Coffee. It’s all about coffee these days. If you don’t know how to make a good coffee yourself, then at least invest in an expensive, custom-made La Marzocco espresso machine and barista who knows how to use it. That’s what “The Mill” has done and the results have payed off. Both their houseblend and single origin espressos are full-bodied, full of flavor (one more acidic, the other more smoky and earthy) and interesting for a reasonable price (1,2€). The flat white however, fell tragically, well, flat and doesn’t come anywhere near to the one in “Copenhagen Coffee Lab”.img_7222
  4. Interior design-wise, try not to think too much about Lisbon as an inspiration. You might use some cork plates and ceramics here and there as a symbolic gesture, but mostly do whatever you like and what you like is un-Portuguese whiteness, Scandinavian-inspired restrained sparseness with uncomfortable chairs and awkard tables. Make sure there’s space for people to put their laptops on, otherwise it’s not really a modern day coffee shop. You basically want your café to look like every other bar you might have seen featured on any random hipster blog or on the Ikea website. Plus, “Copenhagen Coffee Lab” also has this design and they are doing mightily well.
  5. Put avocados on your menu. You should know that they’re superfoods or something like that. Jamie Oliver’s doing it, food blogs are doing it, so hey, why shouldn’t you right? It’s a hype so it’s time to blindly jump on the bandwagon and invest in the avocado import industry (unless you’re using the Portuguese ones, in which case you’ll have to adapt your menu four times a year because you only have them in spring and fall, unless you like contributing to the destruction of Mexican rainforests.img_7243
  6. Don’t be dishonest on the menu, but do make sure you describe the ingredients in a clever way using adjectives such as “seasonal”, “wholesome”, “natural” or “healthy”, which doesn’t oblige you to invest in organic produce, but your customers might think that you do. Focus on the seasonality of your menu, even if your menu isn’t seasonal at all, it doesn’t hurt to mention that. People these days do like that. It’s also technically not misleading to call the tomatoes of the “The Mill toast” “sun-ripened”, though it’s a hard sell considering the fact that we had this toast in November. And the fact that it sounds a lot like “sun-dried tomatoes” might also mean that more people will order it. At least it doesn’t hurt to try.
  7. Sell very ordinary food for a higher price than anywhere else in your street or neighborhood. Ask 7€ for a “breakfast special” (not much more than a coffee or tea, a glass of orange juice and a buttered piece of toast – a “torrada”) that to any local sounds like a moderate rip off because you would pay 5€ or even less for that in your average pastelaria. Also, definitely don’t go under the average price of 5€ for a glass of wine, or you might see your lucrative profit margins swindle. Don’t even think about justifying this rather high price, tourists will gladly pay for that. It’s fine.img_7217
  8. Breakfast isn’t breakfast unless you serve your own bland take of a granola or without being too creative, you can just use the hipster granola-hype for your own commercial gain. Take “The Mill”’s “bircher muesli” for 4,50€: it really shouldn’t be much more than yoghurt mixed with apple-juice soaked oats and honey on top. No need to add extra fruits, nuts or spices (like that Oliver dude does here), that will set you back too much, let alone the ridiculous idea to actually give your customers something unique that they might not be able to replicate (easily) at home.
  9. If you then do decide to use a special ingredient, make sure you don’t serve too much of it. You might otherwise start losing money, plus tourists, expats and start-up kids that are trying to turn Lisbon into the next tech-capital don’t know how much some ham from the supermarket generally costs here and will be wowed anyway. A case in point: the ridiculously small, lukewarm “The Mill” toast for 3,90€ with “presunto” and cheese from the Azores and very plain jane “sun-ripened” tomatoes. Whatever you do, don’t waste too much time searching for the best ingredients you can find, because, well, tourists and everything. The nice thing is that you don’t depend on locals who decide to scrape together some money to try something that they could get in a regular pastelaria as well. Let alone the fact that one of the best cafés in town, Wanli, blows your poor excuse of a tosta mista out of the water in its own bohemien, understated fashion.img_7234
  10. If you don’t speak Portuguese, try not to invest too much time in learning Portuguese, just stick with English. It’s a waste of time really when you’ll be mostly catering to tourists. With your elevated prices, they are the ones who are going to be bringing in most of the money anyway. There’s nothing like being a local somewhere and just being surrounded by English-speaking tourists in a café in the middle of one of your favorite streets. img_7254

To cap it off, some final thoughts about “The Mill” and the context in which a bar like this has come about:

Before you think we like pissing on people’s fancy bonfire roasted marshmellows (well, we kind of do, but that’s really besides the point), we do feel strongly about looking at cafés, restaurants and bars in the broader context of a neighborhood and to a larger extent, of a city. Gentrification is a very complex social issue with pros and cons and we will be devoting more time to the diverse aspects of gentrification in the culinary scene here in Lisbon in an upcoming feature about it.

Sure, we’ll gladly confess that we haven’t tried all of the food of “The Mill” and there might be some dishes on there that are worth your hard earned cash. Absolutely possible.

img_7250That is however beside the point. “The Mill” embodies so many things that are wrong with the current process of gentrification in Lisbon. “The Mill” is another ominous sign that the tourist center of Baixa-Chiado seems to be continuously stretching out its arms like a huge, sticky octopus. In the sickening tow of higher rents and tourist sublets are a string of restaurants and bars that have elevated prices but don’t offer anything really worth paying for or that you wouldn’t get in a regular pastelaria or tasca. Unless you don’t care about that because you have more money than Portuguese people regularly do (especially in comparison to the few who still live in neighborhoods like the one where “The Mill” settled into).

You probably know where we’re going with this. Asking 5 euros for a glass of wine is totally acceptable (presuming then that the wine is worth it), but not when that is your starting price for a glass of red wine as is the case with “The Mill”. Maybe the rent of “The Mill” is rather high. Maybe their wine is something seriously special, from organic co-ops or a family where the dog was trained to fetch the ripe grapes at the right moment. Who knows. But if you can actually pay for a custom-made La Marzocco coffee machine, something tells us money might not be that much of an issue for you.img_7246

No matter what though, some extra nuts or fruits for the Bircher muesli, or just a bit of love for a bigger portioned toast with actual good cheese (we’re in Portugal, not cheese-banned Russia), good quality bread or something else that would have made it stand out, would have made us feel more sympathetic towards this place. Asking a bit more money for something unique or special is totally fine and justifiable, but “The Mill” is either to self-involved or too socially unaware to make an effort in catering to the locals and offering something memorable. There are not enough “sun-ripened tomatoes” you could put on your menu to make up for that capital sin.

Opening hours: Mon-Sat: 08h00-23h00; Sun: 09h00-17h00
Address: Rua do Poço dos Negros 1, 1200-335 Lisboa
Phone Number: +351 21 157 5220


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