For 15 years, the Berlin district of Moabit has had a book canteen – a combination of a restaurant and a bookshop. The unusual concept has been met with great enthusiasm from customers and employees alike. It is the brainchild of Fridolin Taudtmann (35). Having spent years working part-time as a waiter for the book canteen, he was presented with the opportunity to take over the restaurant and book shop seven years ago – and promptly seized it.
Re-lay the cards
The transition involved many decisions, not least the question of whether he would quit his career in academia to dedicate himself fully to the catering business. During his first years of self-employment, he was riddled with doubt: Should he continue? Should he quit? Looking back, he admits: “I had no idea what it meant to make a profit with a team of around 40 employees at this stage. Taking over an established concept is no guarantee that everything will work smoothly and that the status quo is particularly good.” Taudtmann’s new business already came with a solid reputation, established structures and a sizable customer base, but he recalls: “You only get a real grasp on each process and all the figures once you’ve taken over the shop.”
His goal was to break down the firm structures that had been established over the course of many years and shake up the business. He soon found that this was a more difficult endeavour than simply starting from scratch. Taudtmann readily admits that the first years were tough. He drudged through more than 100 hours of work a week and did not have a single day off for five years. “Sometimes, I did wonder if I should have stuck with my university career and its regular holidays and decent social prestige. But I chose the catering business, and I’m glad I did.”
Analogue bookstore combined with digital gastro concept
He never questioned whether an analogue bookshop could actually be combined with a restaurant – a restaurant that had become a pioneer in the culinary scene, no less. Despite never doubting the concept, however, he did feel intimidated by the industry and the combination at first. “I did get myself into a bit of a fret over it: With the book shop, I was once again taking over something I’d never learned, in an industry that is not exactly known to be booming at the moment.” But he knew that a holistic approach was crucial if the concept was to work. “The book trade and the restaurant business need to move in the same direction. It’s the only way for us to be perceived as a unit.”
And he was right: with feedback from external consultants and plenty of meetings with banks, the change worked out. Taudtmann acquired sufficient capital to transform the new shop and increase its profitability. In the end, everything turned out well.
He recalls with a grin: “I pulled through.” His love for the catering business was too great to quit; the diversity of the industry and the opportunities it offered were too tempting. Above all, he loved the feeling of getting through a tough day as a team. “I missed that feeling at university”, says the 35-year-old.
Freedom thanks to digital solutions
One reason for the great success of the book canteen is Taudtmann’s diligent digitisation of all business processes. The innovative solutions by Hospitality Digital, a subsidiary of METRO AG, help him control and optimise his operations.The tool by Planday helps him plan his staffing strategy and functions as a central communication platform for him and his employees. Taudtmann explained: “We can easily swap shifts, process holiday requests and update data. My employees are very happy with the system.”
And what about the guests? “The guests only encounter our digital infrastructure on a handful of occasions.” He smiles. “The coffee and cake stay analogue, and so do my books – thank God!” What the guests do notice, however, is the structural change. All tables are equipped with an ‘order cube’: a futuristic, glowing cube that allows customers to call a waiter. This system minimises waiting times while maximising the utilisation of all stations. The kitchen and bar receive a steady stream of orders rather than being overwhelmed by large bundles of orders all at once.
The intersection is what matters
Nearly 90 per cent of Taudtmann’s business operations have been digitised, which has considerably improved his work-life balance. The new, digital framework also gives him free time to improve existing concepts and structures and prepare them for the future. “If you don’t try to think ahead, you’ll stagnate. You won’t stay relevant to your constantly changing target group.”
Taudtmann has no intention of changing the basic concept of the book canteen. “We really are a proper book shop, not just a café with a reading corner or a bookshop with a big coffee machine. The former would be loud and hectic, the latter quiet and dignified. One of our most important experiences has been the process of finding a compromise between the two that really worked”, he proudly recalls. “It is a very special place. If I didn’t work at the book canteen, I’d be spending my free time here.”