The Baristas of Kiev Are Pink Snails

The Baristas of Kiev Are Pink Snails

A row of coffee-vendor trailers in the form of pink snails block the entrance to the city hall and office of the mayor Vitali Klitschko during a protest in Kiev on July 30, 2015.

SourceSergei Supinsky/Getty

Why you should care

Because coffee controversy gets the blood pumping. 

While Americans in need of a pick-me-up might hunt the green Starbucks mermaid, in Kiev, caffeine addicts can’t miss the hot pink snails on wheels, which sell 40-cent coffees from patches of sidewalk around the city. Yet not all residents love the mobile coffee trucks. In fact, as Ukraine’s very future teeters on the brink, pink snails selling java have roused a heated controversy.

It all started in June 2015, when Vitali Klitschko, a former professional boxer and the current mayor of Kiev, declared war on unlicensed street vendors. Twelve pink snails were soon impounded and dismantled, and thugs of unknown origin attacked some of the snail baristas who continued to pump out espressos. Many residents assumed the city government played a role in the violence, and a backlash erupted against the heavy-handed tactics. Soon, it seemed, all of Kiev was divided into pro- and anti-snail factions.

“No person in their right mind would ever buy a cup of coffee from a snail,” says Sviatoslav Ivanenko, 26, a longtime resident of Kiev who stands on one side of the debate. “They are an ugly blight on the city!”

In downtown Kiev, snails wait at what seems like every metro exit.

Eighteen-year-old Bohdan, a pink-snail barista who declined to give his last name, shrugs off such sentiments. “The snails are nice and sweet,” he says. “How can they not be liked?” That is the question riling the city. Some residents say they are too kitsch; others stick to the tangibles: They don’t pay taxes, they’re unlicensed and they’re clogging the sidewalks.

As the debate unfolded in contentious online forums last year, Kiev authorities pressed ahead with a quota licensing system. In one fell swoop, authorities hoped to drive out the ubiquitous snails as well as the mobile coffee trucks of less garish shape, and bring in revenue with a license auction. In July, the pink snails responded. A platoon of coffee trucks motored to Kiev’s city hall to protest. Baristas barged into meetings, shouting at officials. Local authorities did not bend, though. Snails were kept from city streets, and this past fall, the top vending locations were auctioned off for prices that reached $14,000 per spot. About 200 licenses have been auctioned, even as the original number of coffee trucks is rumored to number as many as 1,500. So during the prime coffee months of winter, residents of Kiev had to walk a little bit farther, and shell out a couple more hryvnias, for a cup of joe.

Now the pink snails and other coffee trucks — licensed and unlicensed — are returning to city sidewalks. So far local authorities have refrained from another crackdown, and some baristas have become more mobile, changing spots regularly. Still, in downtown Kiev, snails wait at what seems like every metro exit. One of the founders of the Magic Snail Company is 31-year-old Oleksiy Busaev. The idea to design a coffee truck as a pink snail was initially a joke, he explained, but now he envisions big plans for the pink snails of Kiev. “We hope to become the unofficial symbol of the city,” he wrote in a message.

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