The article is part of After Corona, a series exploring how the pandemic has changed the world.
For the restaurant industry, the coronavirus is like the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs. The pandemic and its lockdowns were a shock to the ecosystem, threatening some parts of the sector with mass extinction and forcing others to rapidly adapt — or die.
While governments stepped in with assistance during periods of forced closure, they did so unevenly, leaving many regions or individual businesses to cope largely on their own.
An analysis of credit card data in Spain found spending at dine-in fast-food restaurants “completely collapsed” during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, and only returned to about 40 percent of sales compared to the previous year after businesses reopened in June. Delivery orders also took a hit initially, but then spiked, peaking in the summer of 2020 at nearly double what they were the year before. In Germany, out of about a million jobs lost during the pandemic, nearly 400,000 were in the hospitality sector. An estimated 100,000 such posts are gone in France.
Swings in demand and the impact of restrictive public health measures have made the restaurant industry one of the hardest-hit victims of the coronavirus — and a place where the unequal impacts of the pandemic and its aftershocks are on full display. As policymakers ponder how to pilot their economies through the recovery, restaurateurs are still scrambling to figure out how to survive — and wondering what their industry will look like as it emerges after more than a year of enforced hibernation.
In Belgium, a country where eateries have had to do with little public assistance, predictions range from the catastrophic — a “tsunami” of bankruptcies will crash through Brussels “in the next few months,” predicted Thomas Kok, a co-owner of several popular Brussels bars, including Chez Franz and Café Maison du Peuple — to pessimistic but hopeful.
One thing most restaurateurs agree on. The dining scene is unlikely to emerge from the pandemic unchanged. “It’s not the best that will stay, necessarily,” said Pascale Van Weert, editorial director of Horeca Magazine, a trade publication devoted to the sector in Belgium. “It’s the people who are more adapted to the crisis and more flexible.”
Many won’t make it. In May, after Belgium announced restaurants could reopen but only for outdoor dining, Alain Fayt, owner of Restobières announced his establishment would be closing — for good.
Like the rest of the Belgian industry, Restobières had been closed in the early weeks of the pandemic, allowed to start serving in late spring and shut down again in October. Now, after two decades of cooking up Belgian beer-infused delicacies, the 73-year-old restaurateur told the newspaper La Dernière Heure that he didn’t want to do the “bricolage” — amateur handiwork — to build the terrace he’d need to serve diners legally. And so he would file for bankruptcy.
At the other end of the Marolles neighborhood in central Brussels, Dirk Myny and Nathalie Draime were wondering how their restaurant was going to survive. Les Brigittines — an upscale dining room the Michelin guide describes as a place where “The term ‘Belle Époque’ takes on its full meaning” — had long favored tradition over cutting edge. The husband and wife team had little intention of changing that.
The restaurant only launched its Instagram account a year ago, as the first lockdown came to a close, and even now Myny, 58, dismisses the social media app as a sort of “voyeurism.” And you won’t find Les Brigittines on Deliveroo — just a small takeaway menu for loyal customers to order in advance and pick up on their own. Even before COVID-19, Myny was frustrated by customers who would increasingly forgo a full, multi-course meal for a single main dish and a bottle of wine.
During the pandemic, the couple was especially frustrated with what they described as lack of help from the government — and the lasagna-like layers of Belgian regional bureaucracy, which meant restaurants in the Flanders region got relatively generous assistance, while those in Brussels were largely left to fend for themselves until spring of this year. (Relevant ministers for the federal and Brussels region governments did not respond to requests for comment.)
Despite being closed for the best part of a year, Les Brigittines didn’t receive any cash aid until February 2021 — and then it was just €2,000. “It’s like we were designated to become poorer,” said Draime. “And we were [told] to reinvent ourselves — it’s like an injunction to reinvent yourself.”
In the weeks ahead of the expected June 9 reopening for indoor seating at bars and restaurants, Myny has faced more uncertainty: The competition to hire from the shrunken pool of experienced waitstaff was fierce, and the government still hadn’t clarified what health measures would be required.
Bankruptcy simply isn’t an option, Myny said. He has been devoted to the food business since he was 16: cooking, running a dining room, talking about wine. “I don’t know how to do anything else,” he said. “It’s my life.”
Even those willing to make serious changes have found it difficult to make ends meet. Tania Nicaise and her business partner Carine Teston opened Gioia in December 2019, just 12 weeks before the first lockdown.
Their concept for Gioia — to “restore the beauty and the artisanship of making pasta by hand,” a tradition that’s dying even in Italy — was a self-conscious rebellion against “digitalization” and “industry 4.0,” Nicaise said. Located in Brussels’ European Quarter, the airy dining room and fully open kitchen seemed to be in a prime spot for business lunches and networking events for Eurocrats and lobbyists.
Instead, since the outbreak of the pandemic, setting up an e-shop, courting influencers and figuring out how to manage various ordering and delivery platforms, has become a “full-time job,” according to Nicaise. The maître d’ is now in charge of managing the restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram posts.
For much of the past year, Gioia limped on as a takeaway service — but after ingredients, labor, taxes and the 30 percent cut typical of delivery apps, there wasn’t much left. “You work for nothing,” Nicaise said.
They’ve tried other things, offering a rotating menu for people to pick up for festive at-home dinners on Friday nights, advertising to their newsletter list of about 500 names built during the summer reopening. (Though with many EU institutional addresses, they assume many are not actually at the office). They partnered with an organic wine distributor to deliver kits for virtual wine pairing events. They sped up the launch of their e-shop to sell artisanal Italian products.
The duo met working at a restaurant owned by Teston’s father in the late 90s. Now in their 50s, industry veterans are used to the trend-driven caprice of the dining industry. But in this case, they’re constantly trying new things all at once “because we’re afraid,” said Teston.
They aren’t alone. In Belgium, the pandemic sped up digitalization in the dining sector by as much as three years, estimated Pablo Kastiel Gaziel, head of growth for CentralApp, a Belgian platform for business websites and online menus that offered restaurants free services during the pandemic. But even that carries risks. “We’re seeing in the moment a bit too many restaurants moving into the delivery space,” said Kastiel Gaziel. “I’m not sure if in the long term there will be space for that many.”
For Gioia, even once restaurants are able to fully reopen, much of the change is likely to be permanent. The European Commission, which dominates the neighborhood, has said teleworking will be the “new norm” and that it plans to reduce the number of building it occupies. There’ll be fewer power lunches to serve if people don’t return to the office.
“The old times — we think this is finished,” Nicaise said.
Survival of the fittest
Some are banking on things never going back to how they were.
In a conference room in central Brussels, Frédéric Rouvez gestured at the empty office towers outside, normally home to AXA Insurance and Deutsche Bank, and mocked the Belgian government’s response to the pandemic: “It is the war! Stay at home, and don’t move!”
For the CEO of EXKi, a Belgium-based chain of takeaway eateries serving office workers and business travelers, the war metaphor is an apt one. The 20th century, he says, didn’t really start until World War I forced through technological changes. The pandemic, he added, will do the same for the 21st: “After a crisis, you have a real change of mind,” he said.
Last year, the company went from a profit of more than €7 million to €6.5 million in the red. (The subsidies the company received from the Brussels government work out to less than €210,000 — the sum of the company’s rent bills for its 21 stores in the capital for a single month.)
In the meantime, the company lost a good chunk of its workforce in Belgium and France. Many left the sector, with some opting for jobs that seem more secure, like distribution and logistics for major grocery chains — a factor that’s making it hard to hire experienced staff for the planned reopening. Others, especially students, opted for more precarious gig work at Deliveroo and UberEats.
In any case, if Rouvez’s long-term vision pans out, he won’t be needing many of them. Like the owners of Gioia, he’s betting that customers will return to the office, at least a few days a week. And that when then they do, they’ll value the social element of dining together even more. Rather than nip out for a quick bite on the run, workers will want to share meals with colleagues, and to accommodate them Rouvez wants EXKi to be inside the offices where people have gathered.
His idea: a refrigerated vending machine, restocked daily, with grain bowls and salads; employees can just wave their bank or meal subsidy card over a reader and choose their lunch. The idea is to furnish not just the machine but an airy lounge decked out with couches, a long bar and a fancy espresso machine. (Though of course, if companies just want to have the vending machine, that’s fine too, Rouvez said.)
As in many other areas, the pandemic just accelerated an idea that was already in the works. A prototype was installed in the EXKi HQ just a month before the first lockdown. A pilot at one company is set to start this summer, with hopes to roll it out more broadly in September.
“Everybody is speaking about experience in the restaurant, experience in the shop,” Rouvez said. “But I’m sure people will ask for experience at the office tomorrow.”
Digital marketers, sanitation specialists, handymen — add lobbyists and even dissidents to the list of side-hustles restaurateurs have had to pick up during the pandemic.
In early March 2021, posters declaring “Wake Up” started appearing on walls and windows around Brussels, especially Ixelles. The cutlery-bearing fist was clear in its defiance — but ambiguous in its demands.
“There are a lot of people who ask me, ‘But what is your message?’ and I say, ‘I don’t have a message,’” said the restaurant owner behind the growing protest movement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I exhort: Wake up, reveillez-vous.”
The owners of Belgian bars and eateries had watched aghast as florists and even hairdressers had been allowed to reopen, while their businesses were being sacrificed in the service of public health.
Disillusioned with their traditional lobby group, Federation Horeca Bruxelles, some had formed ad-hoc associations to push the government for assistance — or at least clear guidance as to what would be permitted and when.
Others embraced Wake Up’s semi-underground movement, putting up the restaurateur’s posters, joining his street actions (which included dressing Brussels’ iconic Mannekin Pis statue in a Wake-Up bib and projecting “shame on you” in lights against the Palais de Justice court building.)
The restaurateur wasn’t much interested in politics before — he’s never voted. But activism is shaping up to be a permanent new vocation. Following the news that restaurants with terraces would be allowed to serve outdoor diners with limited hours, he whipped up a new poster: “A beer on the terrace under the rain until 10 pm, that’s it. DON’T LET YOURSELF FALL ASLEEP.”
The government has come through with financial assistance: Those with more than 10 full-time employees are due up to €54,000, with as much as €18,000 to those with five to nine, based on how much they lost compared to 2019. (That’s bad news for restaurants with nine on the books, or newer places: Gioia’s owners aren’t sure if they’ll qualify at all.) A new “oxygen loan” also offered the possibility of cash at 1.75 percent interest.
But many in the industry are worried it won’t be enough, especially if public health measures are too restrictive or new strains force them to close again in the fall when the weather turns too cold for the terraces.
Even in France, where aid was more generous, a third of hospitality industry companies are at risk of bankruptcy, according to the EU-level lobby HOTREC. In Belgium, the end of loan repayment deferrals and the sunsetting of a bankruptcy moratorium could bring a wave of delayed defaults.
Whatever lies ahead, the restaurateur behind Wake Up said he planned to keep pushing.
“I’m not for violence,” he said. However, he added, “we will do illegal stuff if need be, and we will do other actions if in six months we’re still here.”
Cristina Gonzalez, Camille Gijs and Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.