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‘This Isn’t Hospitality – It’s Just a Way to Survive’

Restaurateurs in many countries are again facing the need to ‘keep closed and carry on’. In Germany, for example, restaurants and cafés are now only permitted to offer food for delivery or pickup. How are they handling it? And what do they expect down the road? Doris Reck-Hartmann of Gasthaus Fischküche Reck is keeping her chin up and speaking her mind.

Ms Reck-Hartmann, what were your thoughts when the ‘lockdown light’ order came?
We had been expecting it for months. That’s why our restaurant operations were able to transition seamlessly to takeaway and delivery. We had already stocked up on disposable containers and everything else we need, some of which is no longer available due to the high demand, and stored it all in the cellar. But at the end of the day, the fact is that all of us in the hospitality industry worked our fingers to the bone for half a year and did everything that was asked of us – and then suddenly they said: yes, you did a great job, but it was no use.

So you don’t sympathise with this measure?
No, I don’t, really. Sure – there are bad apples everywhere. But there are also areas where hygiene regulations were largely or entirely ignored. And the fact that this also applies to theatres and cinemas, too, where they worked incredibly hard to make sure people felt safe – you can’t really call that fair. I also see the risk that, when they are allowed to open again, many people may think, ‘I’ll just keep going the way I was before. After all, I’ll have to close anyway, even if I comply with all the regulations. So I’ll just fill up my cinema or pub, and if I have to close again or pay a fine, at least I will have earned some money.’ That would be out of the question for us – we have so many regulars, they would say, ‘Are you out of your minds?’. But for places that do a lot of walk-in business, I can see how this thought might occur to them.

You are well connected in the industry – how are others coping with the situation?
Some of the people who have mainly drinking establishments and don’t own their premises are toying with the idea of doing something else for a while. But the ones who own their properties – like us – where are they supposed to go? They just beaver away, trying to keep the business afloat somehow. They’ll simply keep going until the bitter end. What choice do they have?

And what about your employees? Have you switched them to short-time work?
No, because we were also well prepared in that area. And we were lucky – we had a very strong summer season, so our employees clocked plenty of overtime that they can now take off. Plus, between takeaways and the online shop, we are really quite busy. Our servers are helping out in the kitchen as well, and of course they meet the guests who come to pick up their orders. Our temporary workers will also get 1-2 shifts in November so we don’t lose them.

As an independent restaurateur, everything hinges on your staff, right?
Absolutely.

More about it here:

What measures can the food and gastronomy industry take to ensure that it survives the second wave of corona and this lockdown – and any further ones that may follow?

Stay strong – once again!

It sounds as if you have a good plan for getting through this with no more than a black eye…
You could say that, yes. But it’s no fun – because what we’re doing now is simply not the business we got into. We love having people as guests in our place, laughing and having fun. Now they all come with their hoods pulled over their heads, grab their bags and scurry away. This isn’t hospitality – it’s just a way to survive. But even if it’s not what we love, we are incredibly grateful to our guests for ordering and picking up so much food. I must admit, though, that things will get tight for us as well if the lockdown is extended. Then we’ll have to consider short-time work again, too. For the time being, we’re just keeping our fingers crossed – because after the first lockdown, I promised my staff we would only resort to that if our backs were truly against the wall.

How have the past months impacted team spirit at your restaurant?
That has grown much stronger, of course. When the guests eventually came back, everyone wanted to do things right. No one ever cut corners on the hygiene plan. The guests who told us they love coming in because they feel safe here put even more wind in our sails. In August, we had a staff meeting and looked back over everything that had happened – and I think we succeeded in making all our employees like they’re in good hands with us, even though these days, they are actually in very unstable jobs.

In terms of reservations and orders, your restaurant is fairly well advanced digitally. How is that helping you in this situation?
We had the online ordering system on our website set up as soon as the lockdown went into effect in the autumn, and people have accepted it incredibly well. That’s because it’s so fast and easy to place an order with us – no waiting in a long queue on the phone. We had been using our online reservation tool long before Covid-19, and when we were permitted to open back up again, we used it for guest data collection – we just added the second household, and we had everything in one place.

… and then you also have the online shop, which was born during the first lockdown. How did that come about?
Our freezer was full and we were not about to throw everything away – so we canned it all, just like Granny used to do, and sold it. But our guests never knew what we had on hand at any given time, and when they phoned to ask, the server always had to run out to the storehouse to check. Then we set up the online shop and entered all the food there.

Canning food like Granny – you’re living and breathing sustainability even during the crisis. Is that harder or easier?
That’s not a question that applies here – it’s simply what we do. In any case, it’s a huge boon to our image and the guests’ confidence right now. But carrying it through without making any compromises can sometimes be difficult. We can no longer repackage things like ketchup and mustard, for example, so we have to use single-portion packets – and that creates plastic waste. But all our disposable containers are made of sugarcane, so they’re fully biodegradable. We even decided against heat lamps and will get by with reduced indoor seating during the winter – which isn’t so long here. Of course, we still buy and cook regional and seasonal products, and don’t use many convenience items. After all, I still have the same team in the kitchen – they need something to do, too (laughs).

What are you expecting your Christmas business to be like?
What Christmas business? There won’t be any parties in the hospitality industry. All our bookings have been cancelled – even the local tradespeople, who were brave at first, are now bailing out. A doctor’s surgery that want to show their appreciation and support have booked a mulled-wine reception outside by the fire pit – but you can hardly call that a Christmas party. We hope our à la carte business, which otherwise tends to be slow pre-Christmas because everyone is at parties, will pick up a bit this year. But for that to happen, we must be allowed to open our doors again.

If you could make a wish for government and society to fulfil, what would that be?
I would wish for a more differentiated approach, rather than hitting a whole industry sector with the same big hammer. And I wish the Working Hours Act could be relaxed, so I could give my employees a whole day off on occasion and, in exchange, have them work from 10 am to 9 pm on other days. Right now, our kitchen and pickup service are open all day so our guests feel safe and know they will get something to eat even without queueing up at the most popular times.

… and what would you wish for from your guests?
They don’t need to change a thing, they are amazing! No idea where all the anti-maskers are supposed to be – they’re definitely not here!

About Doris Reck-Hartmann

Doris Reck-Hartmann from Möhrendorf near Erlangen came in second in the 2019 METRO Award for Sustainable Hospitality with her restaurant Gasthaus Fischküche Reck. After the first lockdown, she succeeded in bringing all 12 of her salaried employees back out of the short-time work scheme. She and her team hope to welcome guests for indoor dining again soon.

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