Photo by: Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / Wikimedia Creative Commons
First there was lockdown. The great unknown. Global shutdown. The restaurant community connected on Insta Live and Zoom. Then came the cautious reopening, and with it a summer that gave false hope of getting back to business as usual – albeit with social distancing, bottles of sanitiser instead of salt shakers, and international tourism at a standstill.
It was the latter that hit Copenhagen the hardest. Noma’s Instagram feed said it all. First came ‘burger season’, a business decision that proved hugely successful back in late May, when Denmark eased its restrictions but borders were still shut. In July, Noma cautiously reopened with its vegetable menu. But there were tell-tale signs that even this New Nordic culinary Goliath was struggling, like tables freeing up last-minute on a weekly basis. In late fall Europe was heading towards its second lockdown, and with it renewed travel restrictions. Forget burger season 2.0 - team Noma opened an entire burger joint, called POPL. And on 9 December Rene Redzepi served his last reindeer tongues in what would be the final service of 2020. Denmark caved under a spike of infections and announced a month-long closure of restaurants. “When will we realistically open again? We don’t know,” shrugged Redzepi.
The Noma Burger
Restaurants in Copenhagen are supposed to reopen on 17 January, but for whom? Not the millions of visitors who visit the Danish capital each year for its restaurants. Perhaps one take-away is that this leading gastronomic destination - a city that prides itself on having some of world’s best and most influential restaurants - has, well, too many restaurants.
“It was fine before, because we had all these people coming here. Copenhagen has been billed as a foodie destination, every 3rd tourist is here for the food, for the new Danish food culture,” says chef Rasmus Kofoed(Geranium). “It’s been surprising and emotional to see how Danes are spending their money, going out and visiting restaurants, but that cannot last. We are a small country.”
Photo of Rasmus Kofoed courtesy of Gernaium
Sadmir Elsaković Cak, of Fiskebar, says they used to have up to 350 guests per day, but before the latest lockdown they went down to 120. And the kitchen team has been reduced from 23 to nine. “Most of the restaurants have downsized their teams to minimum and cut the working week. Before, no expenses were spared, there were staff parties, trips… everything. Now all that is gone. You can sense the insecurity.”
“It definitely feels like Copenhagen has been too dependent on tourism. We can't see any other explanation as to why a place like 108 would not survive. Especially the fine-dining scene seems to be over-saturated now that there are just locals around to visit,” reflects Anders Husa, who earlier this year moved to Copenhagen from Oslo and runs a food blog with his American girlfriend Kaitlin Orr.
The hardships of 'lockdown light'
Oslo has been nowhere near as dependent on foodies as Copenhagen, and as far as government support goes, both countries have been helpful during the first lockdown, with Norway covering 100 percent of wages and Denmark 90 percent. But with the rise of infections in late autumn, countries throughout Scandinavia started imposing stricter measures without actually closing restaurants. ‘Lockdown light’, as they put it, and has led many to voice their frustration. “It seems like they don't want to bail out the hospitality industry again, instead of shutting them down completely, they are making life difficult for them by enforcing curfews and alcohol bans. This doesn't seem fair when restaurants are, perhaps, the cleanest, most regulated places people can spend their time. It can only lead to more home parties, more alcohol consumption and less concern about hygiene, masks and safety,” speculates Husa.
Photo courtesy of Maaemo
For Copenhagen that ‘lockdown light’ meant a 10pm curfew; for Stockholm, a ban on alcohol after 10pm, and for Oslo, a complete ban on serving alcohol that led many to close temporarily. Among those, 3-Michelin-star Maaemo, run by Esben Holmboe Bang, which reopened in March in a new location before having to close. “It was a tough blow, for sure, but we managed to look for silver linings and used the downtime to work on menus and keeping busy, so when the dust settles we are still standing strong. We have always had an international clientele, but these times made it possible for a lot of guests that didn’t get a chance before to visit us. Until we closed a few weeks back we were full.”
Key word: Adapt
Kofoed, a fellow 3-star chef, has managed to keep all his staff and had a full house thanks to opening Angelika, a 100% plant-based, lunch-only restaurant within a restaurant. “The idea is you can eat something tasty, but that can also make you stronger and boosts your immune system. I see eating as something more than just pleasure. I’d like people to be inspired with Angelika, this green sprout sprouting out of this dark corona crisis,” says Kofoed, who originally envisioned Angelika as a summer pop-up, but it was so successful he kept it open throughout the fall.
‘Adaptation’ seems to be the key word in the restaurant business throughout the pandemic. In most cases, when it comes to fine dining, it means scaling down the grandeur, turning to local clientele, becoming more approachable. And if that means burgers and craft beer in Noma’s garden instead of 17 courses and wine pairings, so be it.
“It’s a way of recognising the changing needs and possibilities of the people and situation,” says Katherine Bont, former front-of-house head at Noma, recently relocated to Punk Royale Group in Stockholm. “I was so fortunate to sit in Noma’s garden twice this summer, eating a burger, and for the thousands of hours I spent in that building and the countless people who passed through, it was just amazing to see Danish families, couples young and old, students lining up for burgers or sitting in the garden with a bottle of wine, that it had a feeling of really opening up. Danes were able to come and experience Noma, perhaps for the very first time. The biggest thing to take away from that is it’s so important in this industry to be able to adapt, and be fluid in what you are doing.”
Comparing Copenhagen to Stockholm, Bont can attest what has been evident to many within the industry – Sweden had one hell of a summer, and even deep into autumn things were looking bright, with back-to-back new openings and fully-booked restaurants in the ‘maskless paradise’, as Sweden seemed to the outside world.
The country that took the controversial approach of no lockdown per se, with recommendations instead of restrictions, and masks not being advised, was hit hard in the first wave. But then for a few months it seemed like a winner. As cases started rising all over Europe, in Sweden cases were dropping after its ‘summer of freedom’. People were going out to eat, and restaurants that Swedes avoided throughout spring were almost balancing out the losses.
“In Stockholm especially, it’s evident that it’s a bigger city and Swedes love to go out to eat, and do so several times a week. Swedes were also not travelling this year, and a lot of restaurants actually had a very good summer, busier than expected,” explains Bont, who was able to get a proper comparison of Copenhagen and Stockholm with Punk Royal having venues in both cities. The one in Copenhagen, usually frequented by foreigners, has been hit harder, so it started offering lunch, which has also proved hugely successful in its Stockholm venues. “It’s been a roller coaster, but we feel fortunate that we are able to learn and use what is happening in Copenhagen and bring things back with us to Stockholm and vice versa.”
Opening a restaurant during a pandemic
One chef prospering in Stockholm is Tommy Myllymäki of Aira, which launched in March, against all odds, and has been fully-booked almost every day since. “The first month I was so egoistic that I thought opening a restaurant was a bigger issue than the pandemic,” laughs Myllymäki. “I get a lot of questions, what’s it like opening a restaurant in the middle of pandemic? I just don’t know anything else yet, since for us Covid has been around from day one. But I think we’ll have a normal life pretty soon and I believe I’m looking forward to it.“
Photo courtesy of Aira
For Swedish restaurants, the party stopped mid-November when officials suddenly imposed an actual restriction – restaurants and bars had to stop serving alcohol after 10pm. It was followed this month by a recommendation not to meet with people outside your household, and to limit going out unless necessary. “This is just a recommendation, but Swedes are very obedient. Government can’t say you can’t go out, because then they would have to cash out. But they can recommend it and people will obey. Hence the limbo for so many restaurants,” explains Anna Norström, a food journalist based in Stockholm.
“Right now, restaurants are dropping. If you are getting 40%, you are doing well. Most of them are doing even worse than in March. There’s a lot of sacking,” says Norström. The only segment still doing well appears to be fine dining, places like Aira, Frantzén and Ekstedt, with tables set well apart, smaller companies of diners and enough “rich Swedes who have nothing to spend their money on since they can’t travel, can’t go to football, to concerts or theatre,” as Norström puts it.
Photo courtesy of Aira.
There’s a strong sense of frustration and weariness in the industry, with every new set of restrictions seemingly imposed on hospitality. Some appear ready to throw in the towel, while others with more at stake try to find a silver lining, even in the gloomiest of conditions.
Kofoed, for example, found the 10pm rule actually helped his team: “My sous chef said he was in bed at 11pm and how great it felt. They look more fresh. It’s also a way to change our industry, try to find a more natural balance in working life. We need to take some of the good things out of this situation and turn it into an advantage, something we can learn from.”
In this ever-changing landscape one thing remains constant - the reason for being in the restaurant business. And it has never been about money. “In the end, it’s important to put things into perspective - whether a 20-course tasting menu or serving a burger. The reason we do what we do, and love it so much, is the hospitality. Looking after people. Giving them an unbelievable experience,” says Bont.