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Lisbon's Santos Collective: How a churchyard became a community hub

Hazel Boydell
Writer
Photography

Lisbon’s Santos neighborhood is home to a number of small restaurants that were unable to survive COVID-19 space restrictions without rethinking their business model. Santos Collective created a platform to allow these restaurants to set up an outdoor food court in a churchyard and then expanded to a weekly farmers market. Through its activities, the collective has reimagined public space and fostered community.

Photo by Eglė Duleckytė
Photo by Eglė Duleckytė
Photo by Eglė Duleckytė
The market has worked like an incubator for some people.
Photo by: Charlotte Vallade
Photo by: Charlotte Vallade

Facts:

- Portugal received wide praise for its handling of the first wave of the pandemic, but it was one of the European countries hardest hit by the second wave.

- The COVID-19 pandemic has set back the country’s recovery from its economic crisis. The Financial Times reports that some economists estimate that more than two-thirds of the 360,000 jobs created between 2016 and 2020 could be wiped out in 2020/2021 as a result of the pandemic.

- In December 2020, the Sobreviver a Pão e Água movement, made up of restaurant, bar and nightclub representatives, went on hunger strike outside parliament in protest of the government’s handling of restrictions and lack of support for the nation’s hospitality industry.

Photo by: Eglė Duleckytė
Photo by: Eglė Duleckytė
Now more than ever, people need to feel cared for and part of something bigger.
Photo: Charlotte Vallade
Photo: Charlotte Vallade
No items found.

or much of 2020, while many other nations were tackling high COVID-19 infection rates, Portugal remained relatively unscathed. But although numbers were much lower than in neighboring Spain, in March 2020, the Portuguese government declared a state of emergency and imposed cautionary restrictions on retail, hospitality and other industries. In a country characterized by small, old buildings and cozy family restaurants, the mandatory spacing restrictions between tables and limits on capacity had a real impact.

Lisbon’s Santos neighborhood is home to a combination of traditional and contemporary restaurants that feed a community made up of both expats and locals, as well as a high number of visiting students and tourists. When the emergency measures were announced, it quickly became apparent that many of the cafes and restaurants wouldn’t be able to safely and legally accommodate enough guests to stay in business.

“We knew we had to adapt,” says Tiago Rodrigues Jorge, cofounder of Santos Collective. “Even the biggest restaurants couldn’t have more than half their usual occupancy. This meant they couldn’t have any business, because they’re really small places without outside spaces.”


Photo by Eglė Duleckytė

What distancing measures meant for small restaurants

Tiago and his wife, Mila Rodrigues Jorge, set up Mercearia Mila in 2017. After living in London for several years, where Tiago worked in delicatessens, they decided to set up their own food-based venture in his home city of Lisbon. A cafe and deli, Mercearia Mila is a popular spot to get specialty coffee, fresh pastries and other high-quality food items.

Although Mercearia Mila could continue selling items to take out and seat a few customers, it was clear that the neighboring restaurants wouldn’t be able to survive the restrictions without some imagination.

“We went to the church in the center of Santos and asked if we could use their yard almost like a food court,” Tiago explains. “Then we set up a platform where people can go and sit there and order, and the restaurants deliver the food there.”

Igreja de Santos-o-Velho is a 17th century church situated at the intersection of three roads. It serves as a focal point in the neighborhood, but the church’s paved outdoor space was mainly used as a parking lot. Tiago saw an opportunity to both help local restaurants survive and reimagine how this public space was used.


The market has worked like an incubator for some people.
Photo by: Charlotte Vallade

Creating a collective

Setting up an open-air food court was no small task, and Tiago was far from alone in his efforts. In February 2020, he and some other community members had collaborated on a fundraiser for Centro Social e Paroquial São Francisco de Paula, an organization that provides food to people in need as well as other services. They had also supported Assistência Paroquial de Santos-o-Velho, a similar community organization, and Re-Food, which redirects waste food from restaurants. 

Now, he reached back out to the community and created Santos Collective with Alex du Toit, the owner of a nearby yoga studio; Camila Fonseca, owner of bar O Flat, which overlooks the churchyard; and neighbor Maria Dominguez. 

“We met because I opened Baraza Yoga on the same street,” Alex says. “Tiago and Mila were the first to welcome me to the neighborhood and we hit off immediately. Tiago and I collaborated on some smaller projects and realized we both have a passion for supporting the Santos community. So when he presented the idea of officially creating a cooperative, I jumped at the idea.”


Facts:

- Portugal received wide praise for its handling of the first wave of the pandemic, but it was one of the European countries hardest hit by the second wave.

- The COVID-19 pandemic has set back the country’s recovery from its economic crisis. The Financial Times reports that some economists estimate that more than two-thirds of the 360,000 jobs created between 2016 and 2020 could be wiped out in 2020/2021 as a result of the pandemic.

- In December 2020, the Sobreviver a Pão e Água movement, made up of restaurant, bar and nightclub representatives, went on hunger strike outside parliament in protest of the government’s handling of restrictions and lack of support for the nation’s hospitality industry.

Photo by: Eglė Duleckytė

How the cooperative works

The collective’s food space is based on a straightforward model, in which they sell food but a separate vendor handles drinks to cover expenses. 

Tiago explains, “We have a van selling drinks, which pays for us to hire one person to take orders and one to check temperatures and provide handwash at the entrance. The restaurants receive the full profits. We take payments and then transfer the money back to them.”

Seven different restaurants are included, with offerings as varied as Sushi Japones, pizza at Zappi and traditional Portuguese food from O Arêgos. Through the summer, the space became a popular spot for locals to spend the evening, with groups enjoying the opportunity to eat from different restaurants at the same table.

Overcoming obstacles

The initiative has been an overwhelming success both for local business owners and the community in general, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Tiago says that the church’s priest was very supportive from the outset, and that the collective has a great relationship with him, but that every week the police would come and check that the arrangement was allowed. 

“Sometimes they would come every day and check permits,” Tiago laughs. “From the outside, it didn’t look like something that was allowed. But the Junta de Freguesia [civil parish] helped – they came up with a platform that allowed us to operate and also created an app called Safe Estrela that people can order food through. The church gave us the space, and the Junta de Freguesia gave us the authorization to operate.”

He also says that there were understandable concerns about the health risk. “There was a lot of resistance at the beginning just because it was new and people were concerned because there was a pandemic happening and they could see us gathering,” he explains. “But they soon understood what it was and saw that we were taking precautions. We made sure the tables were the right distance apart, and we followed all the regulations.” 

Alex says, “Having a great idea is the easy bit but executing it comes with a lot of work and planning. Unfortunately, in these crazy times, the constant and unpredictable changes in restrictions make it very difficult to plan more than two weeks in advance. We deal with it week by week, making the most of the parameters we have to operate in.”


Now more than ever, people need to feel cared for and part of something bigger.
Photo: Charlotte Vallade

Expanding to a farmers market

The dining space proved popular but the collective could see other members of their community were struggling. With reduced restaurants to sell to and fewer shops and markets, a lot of local farmers and small-scale businesses found themselves with excess produce. The solution was to use the churchyard as an open-air market on Saturday mornings.

Tiago says, “We set up the market to solve a problem. During the pandemic, many small producers were left without a space to sell. A lot of the traditional indoor markets were closed, as well as shops and restaurants. So we came up with a space that would host the small producers and other people started to come and sell things like homemade bread and fermented things. We started with the farmers but it evolved to include more small-scale artisanal products.”

Each vendor pays €15 euros for a half-table or €20 for a full table from 9 am to 1 pm, which covers operating costs including hiring a person to manage the event, equipment and licensing. Volunteers help out taking temperatures and ensuring that crowds don’t form. The collective also takes donations that are used to provide boxes of food to a community kitchen that offers meals to homeless people, elders and other people in need in the area.

The market has also produced some inspiring business stories. Tiago says that Pão do Beco started as “one person making bread at home” but that sales at the market were strong enough for it to expand to a dedicated bakery. “The market has worked like an incubator for some people,” Tiago says.


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Reimagining public space

The dining space and market have helped local businesses survive and provided meals to people in need, but the collective is also responsible for revitalizing a public space and fostering community.

Tiago says that the project has had a positive impact and describes seeing families use the churchyard as a place to play. “It’s bringing people together, and now the churchyard is being used for things even outside of our events,” he says. “Before, it was a parking lot. But now, even when the market is not on, people show up.”

In addition to the farmers market and dining space, the churchyard has acted as a venue for a storytelling event and Christmas market.

Alex says, “The value of the cooperative is in supporting local small businesses and creating spaces and projects for the community to collaborate. We started as basic open air space to support local restaurants but we have seen the opportunity to create weekly markets that provide a platform for small businesses to sell and even launch themselves. Not only has this helped local businesses but we have seen how by creating this space, the community has come together in a time where gathering is difficult. We are now planning more projects that encourage this community support.”

The initiative has also attracted international recognition, being listed in Future Architecture’s Call for Ideas as an example of how to rethink underused public space.

Alex says, “We want to be so much more than just a space in Santos. Now more than ever, people need to feel cared for and part of something bigger. We hope to be able to create and provide this going forward for Santos and eventually other areas in Lisbon.”


Lisbon
Portugal
restaurants
hospitality
food
markets
community

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