Are Spain's traditional bars in danger?

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
Are Spain's traditional bars in danger?
The classic Spanish bar, with 'pinchos de tortilla' and 'cañas' (small beers) at the ready. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Spain may be known as a nation of bars but 20 of these humble family-run establishments are closing every day across the country, as more franchise restaurants and chains open their doors. Is Spain's bar culture facing a paradigm shift?


Spain is a country of bars. And we're not talking about a pub or some sleek cocktail bar, we're talking about the traditional, family-run bars you can find in every barrio (neighbourhood) across Spain.

You know the type. The humble 'local' where you can get a beer, coffee or tapa at any time of day. A place where you always see familiar faces, whether it be the grizzled barman who remembers your order or the old regular glued to the fruit machine and smoking a cigar by the door, these sorts of Spanish bars are less of a hospitality establishment, more community living room.

For many foreigners in Spain, they are one of the most endearing things about living in the country.

But sadly, these sorts of traditional bars are closing at a rapid rate, and many are being replaced by chain and franchise restaurants.

Since 2010, 26,830 bars have closed in Spain while 83,879 new restaurants have opened. By the time 2021 ended, Spanish bars were closing at an average of rate of 20.7 bars a day, and roughly 2,000 pull its shutters down for the last time every year.

According to the latest data from Spain's national statistics body (INE), the closures since 2010 represent 13 percent of the total bars in Spain while the number of restaurants has grown by 16.8 percent. 

Spanish hospitality is clearly undergoing a paradigm shift, but why is that?


Are traditional bars in danger?

Fear not, however, this doesn't mean that all bars are in danger of closing. Spain is most definitely still a country of bars. According to INE figures, there is still a bar for every 270 inhabitants in Spain despite the downward trend, a total of 175,890.

In fact in Spain, there are just 142,781 people, 0.3 percent of the total national population, who live in a municipality without a bar.

Empty Spain

One explanation for this phenomenon is the concept of Empty Spain (España Vaciada) in the rural inland areas of the country. With populations dwindling in several parts of the country, many mythical town taverns (often places owned and enjoyed by generations of local families) are forced to close due to the sheer lack of footfall.

In terms of regions, Castilla y León has lost 20.9 percent of its traditional bars compared to 2010; Galicia 20.6 percent; and Asturias, where 20 percent have closed.

READ ALSO: Protect the bar to save the village, new Spanish law proposes

Tourist demand

Around 13 percent of Spanish GDP comes from its tourism industry, yet such a dependence on foreign visitors has hurt its family-run bars in the long run. These sorts of no frills local places don't really appeal to most tourists (nor are they designed for or cater to them either) and the larger restaurants and chains moving in are more than happy to cater to this demand in the market.


The Covid-19 pandemic 

The Covid-19 pandemic also delivered a finishing blow for many struggling local bars. With no customers and therefore no income, many traditional Spanish bars that had been trying to buck the downward trend of recent years shut down for the health emergency in March 2020 and never opened up again.

By the time Spain tentatively reopened society, traditional bars had gone from representing 70 percent of the total number in 2011 to just 63.7 percent in 2021.

Then, on top of that, following the financial struggles of the pandemic, bar owners were faced with another struggle shortly after: eye-watering inflation, particularly on food and drink produce, further compounding pressures to keep their businesses financially viable, plus the fact many Spaniards themselves have been forced to tighten their belts amid the ongoing cost of living crisis.

Many bar owners were forced to bring down the shutters permanently as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic's economic impact. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

Chain restaurants 

But this hospitality sector metamorphosis, the closure of its classic family-run, self-employed local bars, is also reflective of a move towards a more franchise-based hospitality model that values size, professionalism, square-footage (local bars are often very small) and profit over tradition and community.

As local bars close, restaurants and cafes chains are growing at seven times the rate of independently owned bars.

Emilio Gallego, general secretary of the Spanish Hotel and Catering Employers Association, told Spanish outlet EPE that though the pandemic and inflationary pressures are factors, if anything they have only exacerbated longer underlying causes. "It must be seen as a gradual restructuring of the sector," he said.

"They close some stores and open others that are different. Small establishments in rural areas, small towns or neighbourhoods are being closed and others of medium-larger size are being maintained or opened."


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