Running café about far more than coffee and food, says Sladkovský’s Kateřina McCreary

Krymská St., Café v lese on left halfway up, photo: Ian Willoughby

Formerly a sleepy, in some parts grimy, neighbourhood, Vršovice has in recent times become one of the liveliest districts of Prague. Much of this activity centres on Krymská St., home to the very successful Café v lese and several other relatively new businesses. One of the people responsible for the rejuvenation of Vršovice is Kateřina McCreary, owner of the popular café-bar Sladkovský. When we spoke there, I asked McCreary what had inspired her to open the place three years ago.

Krymská St.,  Café v lese on left third of the way up,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“The idea was to not work for anybody any more. Me and my boyfriend at the time were thinking about what we could do together.

“We wanted to do a business together and we just thought that a café is a nice idea, because it’s a community of people that you can somehow cultivate, you can create.

“It’s not just about making coffee and making food. It’s about design and various events that you can do. That was the idea – we liked the fact there were many things in one.”

Sladkovský strikes me as being more like a centre of the community than many cafés. How have you achieved that?

“In the beginning it was the friends that we had from Shakespeare and Sons, which was a bar and bookshop around the corner [in the space now occupied by Café v lese].

Kateřina McCreary,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“They lasted about six years and we thought, this is a good sign that this neighbourhood can actually have a café like this, an alternative café with English books and things.

“That was also an impulse to open something of our own in this neighbourhood, which was kind of criminal and dangerous and dark and with no life whatsoever.

“The people that used to go to Shakespeare became our friends and when we opened they started coming here. And they had friends.

“We started to do programmes here like art cinema and art lectures, and various things. Also we started this civic association [Start Vršovice] which wanted to open, or reopen, a little market that used to be here for a hundred years.

“Through this effort we got to meet a lot of people with similar interests: journalists, designers, artists. So slowly it became a community like this.”

Where does the name come from, Sladkovský?

Bust of Karel Sladkovský,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Sladkovský is actually the name of a man whose bust is above our door [Karel Sladkovský]. We spent a lot of time thinking about what could be a name for the venue, but then we decided on this man.

“He was a 19th century MP in the Austro-Hungarian parliament who was a defender of minorities and a political activist. He was interesting and kind of sympathetic: a vegetarian in the 19th century, which wasn’t quite usual. That’s how we decided that it was the right name.”

In front of us here is a photo of Mr. Sladkovský and a group of other men. Do you know what’s going on in that picture?

“That’s a picture of his office. He was a journalist and he started a newspaper called The Voice [Hlas], and that’s actually his crew of 10 people that were working on the magazine. It was to promote nationalistic or patriotic opinions and to promote the Czech language, things like that.”

In the days of the Czech National Revival?

“Yes, that was that time. He knew Božena Němcová, [Karel] Havlíček Borovský, all the big names of the time. He was himself a big name.

“He started this foundation for the National Theatre. It’s a famous story. The Nation to Itself [Národ sobě] was the motto and it was probably his own.

“So he was very popular and very well known. After WWI he was kind of forgotten, but he was one of the big names.”

Café Sladkovský,  photo: Ian Willoughby
I first met you when we both lived in this area, I don’t know, 10,12, 15 years ago, and it was a wasteland. Now, I read that around the corner on Krymská St. six new places have opened in the last year. How has this area been revived in this way?

“It’s just a kind of synergy effect. Because when one place or one venue is going well, somebody else wants to do something similar and wants to use the publicity and the people who come to the first place, which is already open.

“That’s how it was with [owner Ondřej] Kobza with Café v lese. Then it was Na cestě, which is an interesting bar that I don’t think there’s anything like in town. It has live DJs every time it’s open.

“It’s not open every day but it has live DJs and wonderful sort of chill out music and you can spend the night there till 6 in the morning before you’ve noticed. It’s a brilliant place.

“Then there’s a gallery called Mu Koncept. There’s a fashion shop that has all Czech designer fashion and vintage fashion; it’s called Boho. And there’s Plevel, which is a vegetarian restaurant and they do raw food.

“Always it was the same principle. A friend of a friend asked about a place. What we do here also is we try to keep our eye on empty spaces and venues.

“We tell people, look, there is something on Krymská, there’s something on that corner, this corner. So that we can sort of multiply our… membership, or how to put it.

“But we’re no closed, elitist society. We just like to do things our own way and when we do somebody who does things in a similar way we just like them if they’d like to join us, or do something with us.”

Has it become a kind of hipster area around here?

Photo: Official website of Café v lese
“Yeah, it’s more concentrated on Café v lese, because they do a lot of concerts. They have a big concert venue downstairs for 200 people. So it’s more concentrated on that.

“But Sladkovský, our café, has a different atmosphere. It’s more like arty, talking, coffees, good food.”

I recently met a Slovak guy who I know a little bit and he told me he was moving to this part of the city because it was the place to be. Have you heard of other people moving here?

“Lots. Lots of people do this. Lots of people ask. What we do about shop spaces and café spaces, we also do for flats. We know lots of house owners in the area, so if we hear there’s something empty we let the word spread.

“People always ask. When somebody moves to Vršovice they usually don’t want to leave. They’re always looking for new places.”

Would you like to see this place become gentrified? Is that possible, do you think?

“Oh no, God no. No, no, no. Two years ago somebody wrote about Krymská that it would become a new Stodolní, which is a commercialised area in Ostrava.

Vršovice,  photo: Google Maps
“We were really shocked and we totally protested – this is not what we want. We just want to keep going as we are. This is what we like.

“We want to keep this small business and friendly ties and to do things together, like with [pro-cycling civic group] Auto*mat…

“We do things in public space, various celebrations, like neighbourhood celebrations where you can take a small table out, cook something at home and sell it for whatever you think it’s worth, and have some music, have some fun outside.

“Because this place really was a wasteland and we want to change that.”

Since he opened Café v lese, your neighbour Ondřej Kobza has opened several other places, cafés and even a restaurant, I believe. Have you got any plans to expand the Sladkovský… empire?

“Kobza likes the empire idea and he is always… every day he has 10 new ideas, some of them good, some not so good.

“But we are more trying to work on stability and the reliability of the place – the people who come here always know what they’ll find and they like what they find. So we’re still here and we won’t be moving anywhere else in the near future.

“But my kind of private dream is to have a velkokavárna [large café], like Café Slavia, with like 200 places.

“It’s something traditional to Czech cities – that these large cafés attract all the cream of the city and you can meet just anybody there. You can have decent food and a cake and coffee, a nice view.

“And I’d like that. I’d like that. But it’s kind of a big project.”