When you enter a Metro station in Budapest, the first thing you smell might be the most surprising: the sweet scent of pastries.
Almost every Metro station has one small Fornetti bakery, a generic franchise in Hungary but a luxury to an American like myself. The smell of freshly baked kifli and other treats wafts through the air, attracting riders to pick up small cakes on their way to or from the train.
This is intentional: the bakeries both help boost Metro’s ridership and bankroll the system.
Public transit has a tremendous legacy in Budapest: the Metro system (the third oldest in the world) opened in 1896 and its first line is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its stations are consistently listed as the most beautiful in the world.
Ridership is high, too: over 1.3 million people ride the Metro each day.
But none of this helped the system weather the challenges posed by the fall of Hungarian communism in 1989. With financial support for public transportation gone and the international car industry flooding Hungary (where there were previously only two types of cars available to buy), ridership plummeted. Half a million new cars entered the streets of Budapest in the ensuing years.
However, entrepreneurship within transit facilities flourished. Between 1989 and 1995, various unofficial businesses filled the narrow Metro platforms, ranging from newspaper stands, popcorn stalls, and even “elderly ladies very, very cheap pillows,” according to Hungarian historian Judit Bodnár.
The city’s transit agency, BKV-Zrt, saw an opportunity in this commercial activity: to raise funds, they sold operating rights to Fornetti and other bakeries.
Suddenly, the fragrant scent of cinnamon rolls and croissants began to fill the chambers of the metro stations. More changes were in store: new revenue helped build an additional Metro line, connecting even more of the city together.
Now, to get to most places in Budapest from the city center, it takes less than half an hour. Riders are satisfied too: my professor, a Budapest native, told me that she prefers Metro to any other mode of transportation: “It’s faster. If you have to rush somewhere, you don’t have to stop at any red lights or in traffic.”
So is satisfaction due to the pastries alone? No. But pastries help you get to where you’re going faster.
(But don’t worry, the pillow ladies are still there.)
Photo of Budapest Metro by the author. Photo of Fornetti bakery by Amy Reeves.