This article first appeared on MUNCHIES Netherlands in June 2016.
In a city where weed and prostitution are legal, bakeries have become the meeting grounds for one of Amsterdam's most illicit activities. De Rond bakery—located in the center of town—is the only bakery allowed to open its doors at 3:00 AM in the city. For the past 44 years, Harry van der Manden's ham and cheese croissants have been the drunk snack of choice for anyone who doesn't want a greasy kebab after a late-night out. Last year, it looked like his license to stay open late would not be renewed, but thanks to protests from his loyal customers and support through a petition, the city decided to extend the license for another five years.
Other bakeries are—just like regular shops—only allowed to stay open between 6 AM and 10 PM. But you, me, and everyone else who occasionally cycles home late at night—feeling hungry—knows that there are certain bakers who choose to disobey this law. Between 4 and 6 AM, you can knock on a door or secret gate, and for a little bribe money, grab a sandwich or fresh croissant.
Nearly all bakeries outside Amsterdam's city center do this in secret—some more regularly than others. But some bakers are ready to legalize these "illicit" activities and bring their nighttime business to everyone's attention in hopes that the local government will recognize that their regulations are completely whack.
Bakery Ron Verboom starts baking at 3:30 every morning. By 4 AM, the first croissants and bread are pulled hot from the oven, when late-night eaters show up at the door like a swarm of feral cats to fresh milk. "I have a garage door with the sign 'bakery' on it, and everyone who knocks on that door gets food. It's a bit tricky, because I always have to take their orders, close the door, make the sandwiches, return to the door, unlock the door, take their money, lock the door, and then go back into the store to change cash."
During the week, Ron lets people enter through the back door, but opens the front door at 5 AM on the weekends, an hour before it is allowed under current regulations.
Ron started selling his baked goods at night as a way to survive. "When they started building the new North/South subway line, we went from 650 to 250 customers a day. The government did not provide any compensation so I had to look for a solution by myself. During ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event), more and more people started knocking on my door in the wee hours and I thought, 'Why not start selling'? I have a lot of fixed costs and I'm here anyway. What started out on Fridays and Saturday nights grew into this."
Inside the bakery, it's a party. Ron makes bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches and burgers. Sixty percent of his revenue comes directly from the sandwiches, and he sells them at the normal daily rate. "I like doing this, but there are also disadvantages. I have to work much harder than ever before. I've even gotten a lot of customers from the bakery on the Overtoom lately because they stopped selling warm rolls there."
Ron knows he's going to eventually run into some trouble some day. "I make no secret about what I do. It gets so crowded in here that it can't be hidden. Party people; firefighters; ambulance staff; even policemen show up here at all hours of the night."
Samira Ben Messaouad, a spokesperson for the city government, tells me that every bakery can apply for an exemption to open between 10 PM and 6 AM, but in reality, it's not all that easy. City government officials are afraid of drunks disturbing the late-night peace in neighborhoods across the city. "This is why applications are often denied. "If it were as easy as applying for a license, I would have done it a long time ago," explains Ron. "But if I do it, I am afraid it will be denied anyway."
Over the past three years, there's only been two small fights that have broken out in Ron's bakery, and each took place during the store's legal hours. "Of course there are the occasional assholes who come in drunk or high. But whether they turn aggressive or not depends on how you react to them. I always make jokes and remain calm so that those people realize that they are making fools of themselves inside of a crowded store. The other 98 percent are nice people who are very happy and grateful that they can get something nice to eat."
At Koert van Egmond's bakery Venekamp, people knock on the bakery's back door every night because they know exactly where the carts with freshly baked bread get lined up. "Even the police know what's going on in here, but as long as you don't become a nuisance, they're tolerating it. They often knock on the door to grab something to eat."
While most of Amsterdam's nightclubs are running 24-hour operations, restaurants and bakeries have yet to catch up. The beauty of the illegal operations taking place at bakeries around the city is the warm sense of community for the hungry, drunk, and stoned night owls. Maybe it's time for the government to recognize this and provide support in a constructive way. Besides, the cops are already in on it.