Balout Café is not your usual Tehran cafe. With an area of fewer than 20 square meters that leaves room for only two tables and four chairs, Balout is located in a 30-year-old shopping center which hosts about 14 other cafes and restaurants. It does not have a printed menu, and almost all of the cafe’s equipment is built-in. A lovely couple, Mina Shakeri and Ali Barzideh, manage the cafe, and concentrate on serving craft coffees. But in an environment in which craft coffee is as yet unfamiliar to many of their patrons, the couple faces a lot of challenges for their cafe to survive.
There was a time in Tehran when, based on an unwritten rule, each shopping center could host only one cafe. Now cafes are run side-by-side, each with their own customers. Gandhi Shopping Center is one of the oldest such centers in Tehran, where the enthusiastic and adventurous managers of Balout, with their modern approach to the concept of coffee and cafes, dared to start their cafe right across from Shouka Café, one of the oldest and most famous cafes in Tehran, launched after the Islamic revolution.
Shouka and Balout may one day represent distinct examples of two Iranian cafe generations. For now, they sit a very short distance apart, facing one another, each inviting their own guests for a cup of coffee.
I made my way to the Balout Café on one of Tehran's cold, polluted days. On my arrival, I reflexively asked the young cafe managers whether they had free Wi-Fi. The answer was obvious before they even answered: a cafe with such a small area cannot host freelancers who want to sit for hours doing their work by ordering a cup of coffee. The cafe manager shyly noted that they also do not offer things like salads and pastas. I assured them why I was really there: to try their single-origin coffees.
Barzideh, a software developer, started the business because of his interest in coffee, without any relevant experience as a barista. He is self-trained and has read many books on coffees and watched many training videos.
Customers do not get a menu at Balout Café, and there is no board saying what kind of coffee is served. Barzideh and Shakeri orally explain whatever they serve to their guests one by one, from coffees with different origins to cakes of the day that Shakeri has made. “We wanted to create a friendlier atmosphere and to have more interaction with our guests. We wanted to have dialogues,” Shakeri said.
Barzideh was making me a Sumatran coffee with a Chemex coffeemaker when a Miele automatic espresso maker caught my eyes. I did not expect it to give us a Shot of God. However, with their emphasis on serving specialty coffees, Ali said that they preferred to focus on filter coffees rather than espresso and espresso-based drinks.
In the cold winter, Balout Café only serves warm drinks and their homemade cakes along with specialty tea. Shakeri, who is a photographer, said that rather than pursuing variety, they intend to serve limited but high-quality items. “We got determined to establish our own cafe here when we tried coffees [from] other cafes at Gandhi Shopping Center. It gave us self-confidence,” Shakeri said.
Balout Café opened in September 2015. While Gandhi Shopping Center is a busy place, and finding a free spot in its cafes is usually not so easy, Barzideh said that Balout could not succeed in attracting local customers by location alone. He said that their guests are basically coffee-lovers who got to know about Balout through social networks or person-to-person recommendations. Shakeri and Barzideh are trying to find more “like-minded” people—as they call them—in order to grow organically.
Although Shakeri and Barzideh are satisfied with their job, they do think about moving. They are eagerly searching for a place where they can just serve black coffee for customers who praise coffee, not like those who consider a balanced, brewed coffee as a “tasty Americano”. Regardless, these nineteen square meters are, for Gandhi Shopping Center and Tehran, a good beginning.
Photos by Hadid Golab.