Restaurateurs who dare to do more, not less (Part 1)

Only just opened, and already closed again. Or: Jumped through hoops to get Covid-19 compliant – and then impacted by the lockdown anyway. That has hit many restaurant operators hard. Now what? Bury their heads in the sand? Not these restaurateurs. Part 1 of 2.


Go against the cycle and dare to do more, not less – that’s the course some bold businesspeople who opened restaurants in 2020 are pursuing. Despite Covid-19. Others who had just got their establishment up and running before the pandemic struck were taken unawares by the crisis. Jonathan Kartenberg, for example, opened the French-styled casual fine dining restaurant Irma la Douce in Berlin in November 2019. When the first lockdown took effect, there was one thing he was sure of: the only way he would be able to compensate for the loss of the business crowd and Berlin tourists would be to change his concept.

Jonathan Kartenberg, owner of Irma la Douce. © Florian Kottlewski

Irma la Douce: going flat-out for Berliners

So Kartenberg went the full monty. He opened 7 days a week rather than 5. Set up seating on the footway. Targeted Berliners as guests rather than businesspeople and tourists. Chef Michael Schulz switched the menu to summery cuisine with a broad appeal. Just before the renewed lockdown in Germany at the beginning of November, they introduced country-style dishes with an autumn touch, such as duck in 2 pieces and cod bordelaise. The world of modern French delicacies that was Irma la Douce took on a new accent, and recipes you might expect to find in a French country inn joined the menu staples. The pavement seating was supposed to evolve into a pavilion of good food and good fun. For now, that plan is on hold due to the second lockdown, which forced operations to a standstill.

Nevertheless, Kartenberg is already pursuing new activities under conditions that have changed yet again. ‘I’m assuming we will not be able to open again anytime soon, unfortunately,’ Kartenberg told MPULSE in November. He added, however, ‘We will be starting takeaway operations very soon and doing something for our guests.’ Popular classics like boeuf bourguignon, bouillabaisse or jus made by chef Schulz, the ‘sauce wizard’, are to be offered for takeaway or delivery. Kartenberg is also developing an online shop; his ‘virtual pantry’ now has ‘good taste in store’ and handles invoicing, shipping, labelling and marketing.

But even a superlative-quality, €10 jar of sauce or fish broth will not save a restaurant in the long run without government support, Kartenberg says. While he accepts the coronavirus-related restrictions ‘for the greater good’, he adds, ‘What’s happening now is not normal business. We have no trade fairs or events, we’re in the midst of a pandemic and there are still 3 weak months ahead of us.’ The restaurateur feels that the situation as it was during the summer, when regular restaurant business was possible with a strict hygiene regimen, should be reinstated at the very least.

In any case, his team will remain on a short-time work schedule for the time being – also so they can recharge their batteries and be ready for the future. ‘My people want to work. I say: let’s take it easy. Because, starting in March or April at the latest, we want to pull out all the stops – there’s no other option. We will definitely offer the most amazing Irma menu ever, because put everything we’ve got into it.’ In addition to Irma la Douce, Kartenberg has been operating eins44, another casual restaurant, in Berlin’s Neukölln borough since 2014. He has no illusions about the effort required during the past and the coming months: ‘In spring, I’ll actually be opening my second restaurant for the third time.’

METRO Survey

A recent survey by METRO and Civey in Germany shows that concerns about the hospitality industry are significant. According to the survey, 73.3% of all respondents believe that the Covid-19 measures will have a lasting impact on the gastronomic scene – and it will be a negative one.

Barkin’ Kitchen: flexibly re-forming as Freddy Fey’s Fish & Fries

The 2 movers and shakers behind Berlin’s Barkin’Kitchen have also reinvented themselves more than once. From the get-go, their restaurant covered a broad spectrum and the pace was brisk: individual catered events and supper clubs with fellow chefs alternated with sophisticated lunchtime interpretations of German home cooking. DIY boxes followed toward the end of the Covid-19 closure, as did pop-up dinners at a club during the summer. Early August marked the launch of a takeaway option at their own location that is fairly unique in Berlin: Freddy Fey’s Fish & Fries. The concept of gourmet, hand-crafted fish and chips was born of the crisis. As the situation went on, the lunch crowd from the surrounding offices stayed persistently away. Battered, deep-fried fish and hand-cut chips, British street-food-style, dished out on the patio in the evenings for walk-in customers and fuelled by a small-scale online campaign, offered a better perspective.

More on the topic

What can the industry sector do to survive the second wave of Covid-19 and the current lockdown – and perhaps others that may be ahead?

Stay strong – once again!

Co-owners Frederik Jagla and chef Christian Fey, both seasoned pros who trained in top-calibre kitchens and lent the operation their names, brought the concept to life. The upside: fish and chips is an easy dish to plan, pass over the counter as takeaway and send out with a delivery service. So the repeat lockdown did not take Barkin’Kitchen unawares: ‘Business was good, and it still is,’ says managing director and co-owner No. 3, Antonio Rilling. ‘We’re still open Thursday through Sunday, and we may even add Wednesday soon, too.’

Barkin’Kitchen’s second location, however, is currently closed again. The outpost at C/O Berlin near Zoo Station depends on the gallery visitors, Rilling says. It opened again in September, but with a staff of just 2 people and only as a self-service operation. Even with all this flexibility and capacity for reinvention, caution is still the watchword of the day. Catered events for groups of all sizes, a key line of business, had largely dried up. ‘We’re glad that we’re not a huge company with 100 people,’ Rilling says. The ‘C-suite’, all of whom are in their early 30s, roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Alongside all the creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, that’s important: ‘We’re still fairly young. So we have an easier time coming up with crazy ideas and just giving them a shot.’

Daring to do more, not less: Part 2.

Header picture: © White Kitchen.

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