Half past 12 noon. Zübeyde is standing behind the counter at the food counter in a red apron and black headscarf. Everything is prepared. The 37-year-old lifts the silver lids of the large stainless steel containers with food. Today is meatball casserole, pasta, tzatziki and tomato soup, she lists while pointing to one container at a time.
All this for 29 lira – the equivalent of about 1.60 euros. Dessert costs extra, just under 40 cents. There is water and coke in the fridge next to the counter, all cheaper than in the supermarket. A colleague from Zübeyde quickly puts a board with the daily menu in front of the door. There's a whole line of people waiting there. They are finally allowed in at 12:00 p.m.
Elif and her husband Mehmet are also standing patiently in the row in the aisle between the white tables. You pay at the till, take a tray and finally come to the food counter at Zübeyde. She wishes you bon appetit. The two sit down at the table with an elderly gentleman. Elif says they live in another part of Istanbul, a good half hour away by tram.
Pension anyway small
"We didn't know about this restaurant. We actually only come to this neighborhood when I have to go to the dentist. Last time we happened to catch the opening day here. Now we come here every time I have to go to the dentist."
Elif is 49 and a housewife, she wears short dark blonde hair, trousers, a t-shirt and a backpack, her husband Mehmet wears a t-shirt and shorts. He is 61 and retired. In Turkey, you can retire relatively early. In return, the pension is usually very low. The two have started to narrow down.
He likes to go to cafés, says Mehmet – but he's had to reduce that too. "I went three or four times a week, maybe once again now. I like sitting in cafés. And then, for example, I used to buy cigarettes – packs. Now I roll my own. I have tobacco in my pocket . We save on everything in our lives."
Not the classic image of the needy
Around them, the tables are filling up with young students, men in dirty worker's pants, and older couples. Mehmet continues: "We don't buy alcoholic beverages anymore either – I distill the stuff at home now. If things continue like this, I'll soon be making fuel for the cars at home myself." His wife laughs and rolls her eyes – it is forbidden to burn yourself at home. Nevertheless, more and more Turks are doing this, especially since the popular raki schnapps has become so expensive. The government has drastically increased taxes on alcohol.
"We still have a car, but we leave it more and more often. We find a solution for everything. Holidays, travel – we've also canceled it." The two not only have a car. They also live in their own apartment. The classic image of a needy person looks different.
Murat Yazici from the Istanbul city administration says about the soup kitchen: "If we had planned this project as social assistance, we would actually have had to do more bureaucracy." Citizens would have had to certify their low income or the city administration would have had to visit these people at home and get an idea of their circumstances. "That would have paralyzed the project. But by offering a hot meal here, for which we charge a price that only covers the costs, we don't suffocate in bureaucracy."
"Anyone can come"
A month and a half ago, the city of Istanbul opened the restaurant. 700 meals are distributed per day. If it's not enough, they get another 100 to 150 meals from the city's central kitchen, says Yazici. "Anyone can come. Sure, we would like only those citizens to come who are dependent on something like that and nobody takes food away from someone else. If people who are financially well off come, then we don't think it's good . But we don't carry out checks – we trust our citizens."
He's on the first floor of the restaurant. The room is bright, painted white. Framed posters advertising the city hang on the walls. It looks a bit bare. One floor down, Mehmet unpacks a roll wrapped in plastic film on his tray. "It's like this in Turkey: you can't get what you buy today for the same price tomorrow."
Elif sits across from him. She has already started the soup, but puts the spoon aside. "I recently bought a large canister of water. Last month it cost 20 lira, three weeks ago it was 22 lira and now it's 25 lira. All in just one month. The canister will probably soon cost 30 lira."
freezing in winter
In addition to the food prices, the ancillary costs are also increasing. Natural gas prices have skyrocketed, says Elif. They only turned on the heating when it snowed and got really icy.
At the food counter behind them, Zübeyde fills one plate after the other, always with a hearty smile on his face. "I recognize those who are really poor. Then they always get a little more from me on their plate. And if they don't have any money, then we buy them the food."
More restaurants planned
It's not the main idea of this place. But Murat Yazici is important to say that the city is also concerned with another aspect: "The rapid rise in prices and the sinking purchasing power of the citizens mean that it is becoming more difficult for them to eat healthily. You get exactly that here in the restaurant the same food as the entire city government staff."
The restaurant is the first of its kind in the metropolis. There should be six by September and ten by the end of the year, mainly in working-class and student areas. That's not much in a city of 17 million people. Yazici estimates that around a million people would need such help. But they couldn't afford that.
Mehmet has meanwhile arrived at the gratinated meatballs. He likes it – even when he jokes: "If I compare it to my wife's food, of course it's nothing – well, I've been eating the same thing with her for 30, 35 years." Elif looks at him with a piercing look. Then she laughs too.
support from the children
The two have a 30-year-old daughter, she is married. "To be honest, she supports us. She pays for our groceries in the supermarket." But that doesn't really seem to bother the two of them. "When my daughter and her husband come home from work, they eat with us."
The couple looks carefree. They know, they emphasize, that others here are much worse off. However, Elif is concerned about the situation in her country. "I'm worried about the future of our children, really. We make ends meet somehow, but the young people – no more going to the cinema and nothing. They can hardly socialize anymore. If there is no money, it affects everything ."
The middle class is slowly slipping away
She ate everything. Her husband Mehmet only has a small piece of meatball left. The dishes on their trays are neatly arranged. Before they get up, the 61-year-old also wants to get rid of something: "I'm not that old yet, but I don't have any great expectations anymore. What should I want? A house, a fancy car or a plane?"
With young people it is different. "Even if they have a good salary, it is no longer enough to buy an apartment and a car in Istanbul, for example. Even someone who earns 100,000 lira a month cannot buy an apartment. And with a pension you can don't even pay the rent today."
Yazici from the city administration knows the situation only too well – including that of the middle class, which is slowly slipping. You want to be a role model with the restaurant, also for other cities in Turkey. That alone could create problems.
Not just positive reactions
Yazici's boss is Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu from the opposition CHP. He is considered a possible opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in next year's elections. Again and again he gets headwind from Ankara for projects in the city – supposedly to slow him down. "Unfortunately, that's a reality. So far we haven't had any problems as far as the city bar is concerned. But the great public interest, including in the media, worries us a bit. We can't believe that it's such a good one project gives negative reactions."
Zübeyde puts one meal after another on the plates, still with her hearty smile. Some don't raise their heads, seem ashamed. Others smile back and say thank you. Most are polite and patient, says the 37-year-old trained chef, who loves her new job here – even though she knows that many of her customers are very worried.
Even tram driving is no longer possible
"I always think: How good that this shop was opened," says Zübeyde. "Many people don't have much money – and hot meals are unbelievably expensive in normal restaurants. Here you can get a hot meal for little money. That makes me happy."
Elif and Mehmet are slowly leaving – to the dentist. When will they next come to the city pub? At the next dentist appointment, says Mehmet. Because taking the tram here is not worth it.