As Belgians hunker down in chilly houses, their living standards crushed by mounting energy and mortgage costs, could quaint café customs be rekindled for the modern age?
Belgium is famed for its beer tradition and quirky café culture that includes folky practices and games dating back centuries, from finch-singing and rooster-crowing competitions to ‘savings cupboards’.
Yes, many authentic Belgian pubs installed spaarkasten /cagnottes with compartments for the regulars to put aside money. In reality the ‘savings’ were often spent in yearly festivities or to pay off unpaid bar tabs. But the idea bears closer consideration beyond the publican’s shrewd early take on a customer loyalty scheme!
First, it implied a great deal of trust in the landlords and -ladies – indeed many traditional cafés were and still are run by women – and fostered community spirit. Second, it could be seen as a subtle but ultimately maternalistic way of moderating customer excesses. Third, it acted like a basic solidarity fund for locals. Last, it played a galvanising role by bringing together people from certain professions, associations, sports, and classes.
While the practice has largely died out, some very traditional pubs still offer them; a fact not lost on opportunists who made off with a cupboard full of drinkers’ deposits from an Aarschot pub, according to a VRT-Radio 2 story. The café has since closed, but the landlady said at the time that a large sum of mostly local postal workers’ savings – the pub’s main clientele – was stolen.
Another café in Boechout made the tough decision last December to close its savings account after nearly 50 years in operation because of excessive bank charges to maintain the facility, according to a recent story by the Gazette van Antwerpen.
Visit Brussels’ spokesperson Jeroen Roppe says the capital still has a decent number of traditional cafés or stameneis, as they are called in local dialect. “They’re inseparably linked to the typical Brussels zwanze culture,” he explains, marked by irreverent humour and pranks often mocking the rules and social order of the period’s bourgeois elite.
“There are beautiful examples of 19th century cafés and early 20th century estaminets in Brussels,” says Roppe. Some are perhaps better known like A la Mort Subite and Au Daringman, others fall into the hidden gem category – A la Bécasse and Het Goudblommeke in Papier – while Au Laboureur still proudly displays its cagnotte, according to Roppe.
1. How does the saving plan work?
Regulars are assigned a numbered slot in a wooden cabinet with a set of closed pigeon holes and slots for cash to be pushed through. The money is then gathered up at regular intervals and often deposited into a dedicated bank account. In parts of Belgium, interest from the savings is often pooled to pay for annual Teerfeesten (tar parties), a free bash for members of the savings club.
While some original compartments can still be found in older pubs, today they are mostly kept for decoration. Although a modern generation of café ‘savers’ has sprung up using digital bank transfers, such as the spaarkas run by one pub in Hulshout, which set up its version of a savings box in 2015 as a way to fund street parties including a “beer pong” competition.
In a town outside Ghent, several cafés are also doggedly maintaining their savings clubs, according to a local news story in Knesselare Niuews, which goes on to add context to these old practices: “At that time, the workers still received their wages directly ‘in hand’. The first thing they usually did was take their hard-earned money to their local pub.”
The savings closets prevented them blowing everything at once while giving a “very special reason” to go back to a café. Light hearted as it sounds, the article suggests “collective saving” like this was still taken seriously, especially at a time when only the wealthy could usually afford to put money aside, and social protection was limited or just emerging in the new Belgium state.
According to historical notes about folk cafés appearing in the Zwin Gevoelstreek, a village newsletter, changes in working life in the 19th century – from agrarian to wage-earning industry – prompted the rise of these savings closets alongside wider social trends.
2. Endearing but endangered traditions
The publicans always understood the community service they provided, but they were also pragmatists, suggests Regula Ysewijn, author of Authentieke Belgische cafés (Authentic Belgian Cafés): “The week after the savings are paid out [to members] always meant higher takings for the café. People had some extra cash in their pocket to [shout] a round of drinks.”
Ysewijn laments that traditional folk cafés – and their contribution to Belgian cultural heritage – are too often taken for granted. With fewer people frequenting them, and the hangover of Covid still lingering, many are indeed endangered.
Their closure also marks a great loss to regular customers, she adds, because they have for so long played an “important social function”, serving as the proverbial community living room: “In the past, people would spend their evening in the café because they could not afford to light the stove at home.”
3. A round of savings
To those at home being instructed by experts to “warm the body not the house” and struggling to make ends meet, this story is starting to sound very familiar.
Indeed, perhaps we can learn from the past, finding creative ways to save money, energy and the environment all at once, and maybe even save local patrimony while we’re at it. The all-in-one solution is to pull up a stool at a popular estaminet, buy a drink, meet some locals, and stay warm together.
As with many folk practices, the idea of a spaarkas might have become outmoded but the earnest welcome and zwanze spirit never go out of style.