“Will the restaurant business ever be the same?” Since the beginning of the mandated restaurant shutdown three weeks ago due to the spread of the Corona SARS-CoV-2 virus, I’ve been asking myself this very question. At a time where weeks feel like months, only one thing is for sure: We know nothing yet. And this is just the beginning – the beginning of the end for some things, but almost certainly the beginning of something new as well.
“At a time where weeks feel like months, only one thing is for sure: We know nothing yet.”
Every morning after I wake up I go through my messages, emails and Instagram feed to see how Berlin’s restaurants are responding to the crisis. If it’s not my turn to host a fully fledged kindergarten in my house for a pack of wild animals (my kids), I get into my car and drive around Berlin. The car is my safe space, nothing can get to me here. Driving through the city has a meditative effect on me right now, no more traffic jams just empty streets and desolate public spaces sweeping by like an apocalyptic reality. During my excursions I visit the restaurants which have adjusted their offering and are open. We chat at safe distances, I ask questions on how they are coping and adjusting and then I buy whatever food they have to offer. On other days I sit at home eagerly awaiting deliveries from all across Berlin which I photograph before enjoying with my family. At night I sit awake, reading and listening to the roundups from the apocalyptic world of food right now with a growing realization that the restaurant reality we’ve all gotten used to, and the nature of my own work, might come to an end soon.
Will there ever be a “normal” in the world of food again? That’s the question which keeps me awake at night. Whilst a lot of industries are in real trouble, we’re heading towards a full-on paradigm shift in the world of gastronomy right now where a whole new looking “normal” looms on the hazy horizon. Restaurateurs will neither be allowed to operate as they did before, nor will they be able to because of the trauma this crisis has caused. All across the world, restaurants are trying to communicate to legislators that nothing except quick, no-strings-attached financial help will stop the eradication of the industry as we know it. In Berlin, the vast majority of hospitality staff have been sent into “Kurzarbeit”, a governmental employment agency-funded program that covers 60% of net salaries (not taking tips into account) for a time span of 12 months.
In addition, loans have been made available by the state bank IBB, a highly questionable mechanism for businesses such as restaurants (which hardly ever qualify for loans) where borrowing money merely means postponing inevitable bankruptcy. There are also smaller cash payments which have been made available by the state and the federal German government, these are mechanisms that provide temporary relief (if you qualify for them) but when speaking to restaurants, I get the same feedback: It’s not enough and it’s not fast enough. Even the Kurzarbeit money for staff has to be covered upfront by the restaurants – a tough burden for many of them. The fixed costs of rents, insurances, mortgages etc. are immediate and unforgiving for owners and right now, they are mostly on their own when it comes to lightning that burden.
MASS-EXTINCTION ON THE HORIZON
The truth is, anything but a quick return to the exact way things were will cause a tsunami of bankruptcies across the restaurants of Berlin. The industry is trying to cope at the moment, hoping for miracles, but many won’t be able to stay solvent for longer than 1-3 months. Facing the current projections where restaurants might not be allowed to serve customers in-house until May or possibly June (or even later, we have to face this possibility), it remains highly unclear who we’re going to see come through on the other side of this.
“The industry is trying to cope at the moment, hoping for miracles, but many won’t be able to stay solvent for longer than 1-3 months”
As dystopian as this may sound, if you look at the interconnectivity of the food industry we’re facing an even larger, seismic shift in food consumption. If restaurants go under, so do all their suppliers and all their connected businesses from wine and beverage vendors to wholesalers, event businesses, farmers, fishermen and so on. On a larger, macro-economic scale, we have to ask ourselves what will happen with things like real estate when restaurants aren’t able to pay their rent anymore. Maybe David Chang is right with his theory that real estate owners and banks will have to step in and subsidise restaurants for the foreseeable future in order to enable a collective future. And these are just examples, the truth is there are a myriad of other businesses that will suffer or go down with restaurants and the true extent of this crisis will only reveal itself in the course of the next months.
ADAPTING TO NEW REALITIES
The light at the end of the tunnel for me in all this has been the Berlin restaurant scene’s response to the Corona crisis. While other German and European restaurant scenes have remained seemingly shocked with their head buried deep in the sand, Berlin’s restaurateurs started adapting immediately. Right now, not a single day passes without a restaurant re-opening with a highly innovative offering. From simple takeaway food, to meals to heat at home setups, and produce boxes from restaurant suppliers, restaurants are coming up with the most mind-gobbling offerings. Mrs. Robinson’s, Barra and Lode & Stijn have re-launched as sandwich and produce shops with lines of socially distanced guests wrapping around the block to score something from their much sought after takeaway menus.
“Right now, not a single day passes without a restaurant re-opening with a highly innovative offering.”
Nobelhart & Schmutzig and Tim Raue have reimagined their restaurants as full-service delivered dinner packages including beverages, playlists, condoms and virtual dining rooms. The list goes on and grows by the day (check my Lockdown Guides for a selection of my favourite offers) and there’s even a bunch of restaurants not open to the public which are instead involved in charity projects to cook for hospitals, firefighters and other public institutions involved with crisis relief. “Kochen für Helden” by the Tulus Lotrek crew is the most noteworthy one here.
In these times of unparalleled adversity and uncertainty it’s astonishing to see not only the speed with which Berlin’s restaurants are getting up and running again, but also the level of innovation and determination -passion, even- they showcase whilst they do it. I mean damn, I’m not exaggerating when I’m saying that I’ve been eating some of the most memorable “restaurant” meals of recent years in the last weeks, all on the street curb, in my car or within the sanctuary of my own four walls. The sandos by Mrs. Robinson’s? So tasty. The fried chicken sandwich by Barra? Magnificent. The Bara-Chirashi by Shiori? Insane. The quality of the Ernst seafood box? Unreal. I’m certain not just that I will forever remember some of these exceptional foods, I’m also convinced that the restaurants which got back to cooking right away will be the ones to bounce back the quickest once we know the outcome of this crisis.
THE FUTURE IS DIGITAL
I’ve had countless conversations with restaurant owners and workers over the last weeks and when I try to catch a glimpse of the future, I see a lot of things playing out: some are bad, and some really bad, but there are definitely also positive takeaways from all this. “Adversity is a terrible thing to waste” is a magnificent quote which echoes around my head (said by Will Guidara on the “Take Away Only” podcast), and I’m applying this mindset to my personal work where all my freelance writing, travel journalism, food tours, brand collaborations and other consultancy work ceased to exist from one day to another. Almost immediately, I chose to tackle this anxiety-inducing beast of a crisis head-on and started focusing on my amazing Patreon premium community members as well as on my daily reporting from the landscape of updated restaurant offerings. It’s been a steep learning curve and I’m finding a lot of comfort in my close community of food nerds where we discuss lockdown strategies which start with the best takeout food and go on to the best food series on TV, and the best cooking equipment.
““Adversity is a terrible thing to waste” is a magnificent quote, which echoes in my head…and I’m applying this mindset to my personal work”
I’m sure this crisis will have a lasting effect on my professional existence, who knows if there even will be any restaurant writing in the future. Speaking to restaurants in Berlin, I’m certain that the newly developed crisis operations also will have a lasting effect on their future existence. All these forced new learnings based around simpler offerings, online shops, digital payment, marketing and delivery will stick and could even make restaurants question the path they’ve been walking on up until now. Whatever the world of restaurants in Berlin and elsewhere looks like in the future, the ones which have already started adapting are already in transition mode and on the way to changing their existence. Cash is finally going to play a less significant role, but that’s only a side effect. Why scrap an online shop you’ve built when you could just as well can continue using it? Why not continue to make sandwiches if people are lining up around the block for an hour to buy them? Why not sell your suppliers’ produce on if it makes people consume locally and skip the supermarket? As restaurants are heading towards a very long phase of limited occupancy, every restaurant will have to adapt an omni-channel strategy with at least one other source of income apart from serving customers in their restaurants.
THE VALUE OF COMMUNITY
The beauty of all this is that a large part of Berlin’s new offerings are built on community as restaurants are offer help to each other, share advice and best practices on how to secure financial help, lend each other equipment, work together for charity and help each other out with ingredients. It’s bloody beautiful to see this hive-mind flourish at the moment. Looking at how quickly Berlin adapted compared to other cities, I’m convinced that Berlin’s restaurant scene was better equipped to handle this crisis than others. Not because everybody is sitting on a fat cash reserve, quite the opposite actually – it’s the lack of money within the scene that’s keeping people alive. We all came here to chase a dream of some sort and adapting to a new situation with very little money is in our DNA. This crisis is a time where our strongest assets of community and limited capitalism, finally pay off. Of course, a lot of that might also disappear in a future where there’s real money to be made again, but my hope is that this community thinking sticks.
A NEW VALUE PERCEPTION
There are more significant changes than that on the horizon though. Amanda Cohen, an American Chef and a friend of mine, wrote an extraordinary piece for the New York Times which says: “When the seas were smooth, we could all scrape by. But now we know what a storm looks like. And we have to decide if scraping by is good enough.” Margins in the restaurant world have always been too slim, workers always underpaid, the weakest always exploited and appreciation from the guest side always too low. In the U.S. the tip-based system offered an extra vulnerable dimension where there is now no safety net. But in Berlin, guest appreciation and understanding of value has always been notoriously skewed. The days of extra cheap and super affordable Berlin were already ending, but this crisis is finally putting those days to the grave and when it comes to food, that’s a good thing
“The days of extra cheap and super affordable Berlin were already ending, but this crisis is finally putting those days to the grave”
Besides the forced exits, we’re also definitely going to see a massive exodus from staff from the world of hospitality with a lot of people likely to say “screw this, it’s not worth it”. But for those who do make it to the other side of this, we’re gonna have to do better. When Berliners see the majority of their favourite restaurants go bankrupt after a few weeks without guests, they might finally realize what kind of financial reality restaurants really have been dealing with. Once we get to the other side of this, what or whenever that might be, the restaurants that are still left will have to increase their prices and we as guests will have to pay a more realistic price for services rendered. Prices that reflect the true value of exceptional ingredients and craft, but also prices which reflect the full dimension of human capital involved in creating their dining experience. Every employee in every restaurant needs to be on the official payroll and needs to be able to survive on a salary without tips. What we pay will also have to be enough so that owners can put away money for any future crisis, as a pillow for any similar situations to follow.
“But for those who do make it to the other side of this, we’re gonna have to do better.”
Consider this: Step out of your filter bubble for a second and imagine what the current situation must be like for the restaurants you aren’t hearing about, the ones that aren’t on Instagram or Facebook or in the news. Where half the staff might be paid 5€ an hour, off the payroll, and where there is no Kurzarbeit. The Döner shop on the corner, the “Mom and Pop” Vietnamese next door, and the African dishwasher at your favourite fancy Italian place. These are the true silent majority and these people are in deep trouble right now. There is a chance that they won’t be Ok and that breaks my heart. The only way you can make things right for these people and their successors is if you are willing to pay 6€ instead of 3,50€ for your Döner and 15€ instead of 7€ for your Schweinebraten in the future.
MAKING FOOD SIMPLE AGAIN
A major forced learning for myself during this crisis has been to value the small things in life. This virus is the biggest bullshit filter ever conceived, relentlessly exposing insignificance after insignificance in every aspect of our lives. I’m calling my old parents, who are quarantined in Spain, multiple times a day (I hate phone calls but I’m worried sick about my beloved parents), laying out 1000-piece puzzles with my wife (I hate them with a vengeance but I love my wife) and gluing paper binoculars together with my kids (I hate basteln but I love my kids). This mindset especially applies to food and drink. I’m astounded by how intensely I’ve cherished the food and wine I’ve eaten and drunk during these past weeks. When I received a delivery the other day from Apocalypse with bread and pastries from Albatross and cheese from Alte Milch in Kreuzberg (I live in Prenzlauer Berg) I almost started weeping. Same when I unwrapped my stunning Chirashi bowl from Shiori, fried up some Bitterballen from Lode & Stijn and shucked some oysters from Ernst. I just felt so damn happy and grateful to get this produce on my table and it was so special. Generally I’ve made a massive effort to consume locally in the last weeks and I feel spectacular about it, buying as much as possible from my Vietnamese corner shop, ordering new kitchen equipment once a week from my local kitchenware shop and
“This virus is the biggest bullshit filter ever conceived, relentlessly exposing insignificance after insignificance in every aspect of our lives.”
I don’t think I’m going to forget about this feeling after all this is over. One thing is cherishing the local, another is how simplicity is the new black. Berlin’s restaurants are demonstrating it with their new takeout menus, offering food that’s a lot more casual than anything they would ever normally cook. Jürgen Dollase wrote about how we might not have realized before how we’ve been living in a restaurant hype bubble. I strongly agree, and I also believe that this crisis will affect that bubble and possibly even pop it. Who has the time to care for Michelin Stars, Gault Millau points or World’s 50 Best rankings right now? Who even feels like 50-course dinners or eating food where the only purpose is to look good, contain certain luxury ingredients and evoke a sense of novelty? Some people always will of course, but maybe it will be less after this. Import restrictions and guest worker limitations will boost consumer knowledge of localism and seasonality and a newfound appreciation for realness and cooking with integrity might help fuel the back-to-the-roots bistronomy movement we’ve already seen emerge over the last few years. This applies equally to chefs and diners. The result will be a lot of brutally honest cooking without smoke, mirrors and exotic ingredients. That part I’m looking forward to. But it’s going to be a really painful journey until we get there and not everyone is going to make it. Only the most resilient, innovative and quickest adaptors will have a chance to see this crisis through til the end.
THE END IS NOT NEAR
In the end, I might be wrong about all of this. Maybe everything just bounces back to normal and we’re allowed into restaurants again in a few weeks. But will it really be “normal”? Will we travel the world to eat at restaurants? Will we sit down with our friends for hours in small restaurants and eat from shared plates? Consume food prepared by cooks who don’t live in isolation and who don’t cook with gloves, wear protective masks while they touch and taste your food? I don’t think so. We truly don’t know anything yet and we can’t even imagine what the world will look like in 6 or 12 months. We had a good run in food extravagance, now it’s time to focus on what’s important in food and make sure that the good work isn’t lost for ever. The real danger on the horizon is, of course, that the financial juggernauts of convenience food survive whilst the little guys don’t, but every Euro you spend at your local restaurants and shops makes that less likely. I personally also feel a million times safer buying my food from a quality restaurant instead of buying it from a supermarket, where I have no idea on how the food has been handled.
The challenges the restaurant industry are facing are daunting, but a crisis always creates opportunities. The next year might be the best chance we’ve ever had to accelerate change within topics that have been discussed for a long time. We can’t control this virus, but we can control what we make out of it. It’s up to you and me. Keep on cooking. Keep on consuming restaurant food. Order food from local suppliers. Hang in there.
“Take Away Only” An extraordinary emergency podcast series about the hospitality industry in crisis by journalist Howie Kahn with American guests from all over the world (don’t miss Will Guidara, Andrew Zimmern, Matt Orlando and especially Nick Kokonas)
The Dave Chang Show with the newest episodes from Chang’s family lockdown (don’t miss the Corey Lee episode)
“Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Could Change Dining as We Know It, Forever” by Lisa Abend on Vanity Fair
“We’re Good in Mayhem” by Lisa Abend on Vanity Fair
David Chang Interview by David Marchese
“Will the Coronavirus Make Restaurants Like Mine Extinct?” by Amanda Cohen for the NYT
“Restaurant Apocalypse” by Kate Taylor for the Business Insider
“Restaurant Diaries” a series of Corona crisis articles by Fast Company
“Kochen für Helden tut einfach wahnsinnig gut” Jan-Peter Wulf interviews Ben Pommer from BRLO Brwhouse
“Kochend durch die Krise” by Eva Biringer for FAZ