VILNIUS - Bernie Ter Braak, owner of Vilnius' popular Cozy cafe, knows just how difficult it is to keep a foreign business going in Lithuania. Since opening his cafe-restaurant in 2004, which transforms into a DJ bar at night, the Dutchman has climbed over nearly every legal obstacle in the book. And he's still got stairs ahead.
When Ter Braak first saw the charming cavern-like string of rooms, he knew it would be the perfect setting for his cafe - an intimate place for locals to eat, drink and relax in good company. The premises dates back to 1536, and, after a bit of remodeling and interior design, has become one of the city's most welcoming abodes.
That's why, when Ter Braak's license expired in December 2005, there was no way he was going to give the place up. But despite every effort, the Dutchman still hasn't been able to renew his license. His friends say it's because he's a foreign businessman, but Ter Braak disagrees.
"I don't think it has to do with me being a foreigner. We are simply trapped in a vicious circle of bureaucracy, and not one of the controlling institutions dares to take responsibility for this," he says.
But one thing is clear, the neighbors, who complain that the bar is noisy, want Cozy out, and the bureaucratic institutions simply don't care. Ter Braak is well aware that he's fighting this battle alone.
"If the company goes bankrupt and shuts down, then the neighbors will stop complaining and 's no more headaches for the institutions," the Dutchman explains. "This of course drives me crazy, but justice keeps me going. I won't give up on Vilnius."
This situation has become almost absurd, Ter Braak says. He maintains that the bar has not caused any public noise violations, and always respects the instated norms. Therefore, the neighbors' complaints are merely annoying.
"Their lives are tedious 's this must be the main reason for their complaining," he says. "A Lithuanian proverb says 'while a house is burning, the neighbors are dancing around the table.' Isn't this what it's about?"
Everybody knows that the Baltics are blooming in the eyes of Western Europe, especially since Vilnius was named European Capital of Culture 2009, an honor that Tallinn will also share in 2011. And as difficult as the bureaucratic situation still may be, a growing number of foreign entrepreneurs are daring to follow Ter Braak's footsteps.
Meanwhile, the Cozy owner has become quite familiar with Lithuania's court system, and openly discusses his struggle to reclaim his Expertise Protocol license from the Vilnius Public Health Center.
"To run a bar/restaurant/dance club business, you need a license for food processing, alcohol and tobacco. It's like a puzzle - if one piece is missing, you can't have the full picture."
As far as Ter Braak is concerned, his customers come first, and he will do anything to keep Cozy open for them.
"My friends and I consider the place a second home where we meet an international crowd having a glass of French red wine or a cup of tea," said Mindaugas, a 26-year-old law student and long time Cozy patron. "It's a place for socializing that really does feel cozy."
Although he has yet to give up on Cozy, Ter Braak already has ambitious plans to open a new business this autumn. If all goes as planned, the Dutchman will soon be the new owner of Pacha, a franchise of the famous Spanish Pacha in Ibiza. The giant two-floor dance club, which can accommodate up to 15,000 people, will be located on Gedeiminas Prospekt, the Oxford Street of Vilnius. Ter Braak is already ecstatic about the idea. "Vilnius is ready for it. It will be a big step forward for the Baltics' nightclub life."
Ter Braak isn't too worried about Cozy's future. He's confident that with persistence and determination, he will win the bureaucratic battle ahead. And when he does, he'll be off to achieve his next venture.