Re-opening of the Gastronomy: Why the Road is Still Long

by Damien Guichard

 

May 21st will long be remembered as the day gastronomy came back in Berlin. At least outside, anyway… After seven months of closures – the first time in 70 years – German bars and restaurants owners were finally able to jump start their businesses for what we hope is the first step towards a return to normalcy.

As news outlets and members of the general population were quick to exult and celebrate what might come across as the end of the pandemic, the reality is more nuanced for hospitality professionals. It is a good first step indeed, but we are not out of the woods yet. The reopening of our industry is a process - and with this process comes a lot of uncertainty.

 

Recovered, vaccinated, tested

First of all, the reopening plan issued by the government is conditional. The current plan is based on the case incidence rate: as long as cases remain under 100 per 100 000 inhabitants, bars and restaurants are allowed to open their outdoor areas from the May 21st, and inside areas from June 18th. Every business is held accountable for checking that all guests provide negative tests, proof of vaccination or previous infection, and enforcing a strict hygiene plan including a compulsory registration for each guest. Alcohol sales also become illegal after 23.00, although with noise restrictions, outdoor service would have to end by then anyway.

 

The big question: Will it stay like this?

Angela Merkel has announced that the country has made enough progress towards the end of the pandemic and that no further restrictions should be reinstated, if everything goes well. But gastronomy professionals cannot help but wonder - what if the incidence rate goes back up? Will bars and restaurants have to close their doors again? Will weeks of preparation once again have been for nothing?

 

Early closing, late opening

As a non-essential industry, bars and restaurants have been some of the first establishments to face closures whenever corona cases increased. They have also been some of the last to reopen when cases decreased. This has forced employees and business owners to be extremely flexible and creative. It has been almost impossible to make any kind of concrete plans for reopening, as the framework for eventual re-openings is always changing. The past year has been a challenge of juggling takeaway models, hygiene plans, delivery services, online events, and much more.

 

The industry reinvents itself

However there has been a silver lining: our industry has really stepped up to the challenge and has come up with creative ideas to fill the void. Pivot is undeniably the word of the year as the uncertainty has forced us to reinvent ourselves and adapt our approach with every official announcement. Whether it was take away drinks, the surge of bottled cocktails and RTD products or online platforms, the actors of our industry gave a new meaning to the word hustle and did much more than simply maintain above water.

 

A new responsibility

Thanks to strict hygiene plans, social distancing, contact tracing and masks, the hospitality industry has been able to create safe and responsible spaces for our guests. Our job is no longer limited to ensuring that our guests have a good time, it now also extends to ensuring their health and reducing risk of transmission. While not always easy, this pivot has been largely effective. Thanks to the hard work of our colleagues, gastronomy has not been found to be a driver of the pandemic, at least not during periods when we could open. We adapted successfully - but it was not of choice, it was a matter of survival.

As we enter a new reopening phase, we bring the lessons from the last year with us. Disinfection, masks, data protection-conforming guest lists… things we never could have imagined have now become the new normal.

 

Gastronomers become inspectors

This again causes stress and uncertainty. The bartender is a multi skilled individual: sometimes referred to as the friend, the psychologist or the referee, bartending is one of the most demanding jobs there is. With all the new demands of working during a pandemic, hospitality workers are stretched thin. After a whole year on furlough, or working in a takeaway model, they will now go back to work with a lot of pressure coming from their employer. For the business, “every cent counts”, and staff members will now have to improvise themselves as vaccine, registration and test inspectors.

 

There are not enough staff

In addition, the bar and restaurant business is suffering from a staff shortage. The corona crisis isn’t the only factor causing it but it most certainly has exacerbated it. Our industry is simply not as attractive as it once was - the lack of stability and support has become a major turn off for young people looking to work in a creative industry and the pandemic has been a catalyst. The challenge now will be for bar owners to find ways to train, support, and retain staff.

 

Motivating the guests

Guests have voiced their excitement that their favourite establishments will once again reopen, but they, too, are not without uncertainty. Although bars and restaurants will be open, it will not be as simple as walking over to your favourite bar for a nightcap. Unvaccinated guests will need to get tested before coming, and all guests will likely need reservations as outdoor capacity is limited. Not to mention the fact that some guests may still feel nervous about the risk of infection. Yet another challenge in reopening will be in creating a comfortable, safe environment, and making that visible to the guests. Making reservation systems, corona procedures, and opening hours accessible to the guests will also help increase their motivation to jump through all the hoops that may be required to visit their favourite watering hole.

 

Pessimism or just caution?

This might come across as a very pessimistic perception of the gradual reopening of our industry, but it is rather the impact of a paradigm shift in the last year. Due to the pandemic, consumption habits have shifted and the meaning of “comfort zones” has considerably shrunk and become restricted to the comfort of one’s home. For an entire year, the well-being of our industry was directly linked to the fluctuation in corona cases. Bartenders and business owners may now feel a hesitance to get too excited about reopening - what if things change? Our guests may also feel some of the same uncertainty or discomfort. It will most certainly take some time until people feel comfortable enough to find their pre pandemic spontaneity and carelessness.

 

With diligence and ideas to a comeback

The bar and restaurant industry has shown an unparalleled tenacity and creativity over the past year. The constant adjusting and tweaking of business plans has led to some amazing new concepts. I have no doubt that this same industriousness will carry us through these final stages of the pandemic and eventually back to normality.

 

Our industry has always been at the centre of social interactions since the beginning of times and I firmly believe that we can also be instrumental to the gradual return to normalcy. We will once more be able to pull up a barstool and strike up a conversation with a total stranger one day soon.