In the European epicentre of Covid-19, many businesses have already been closed for weeks. But while governments balk over bailouts, and in the face of an increasingly uncertain future, resilient restaurants are getting creative in their fight for survival. In Portugal, one of the smallest countries on the continent, the restaurant industry is particularly at peril. Here, where the economy is heavily dependent on tourism, mandatory closures are beginning to take their toll. And with 12-14 per cent of the Portuguese population employed in the hospitality sector, thousands of jobs and businesses are at stake.
Creativity is the key to Portugal’s restaurant lockdown
Photo Fine Dining Lovers Artwork
But some Portuguese restaurants are fighting back. After just two days of lockdown, chef Hugo Brito of Boi-Cavalo restaurant in Lisbon’s bohemian Alfama neighbourhood, revived an old Vietnamese pho pop-up project that he had conceived a few years ago.
"Changing the entire structure of the current restaurant to delivery seemed very complicated, so the idea was to bet on a project that I had already tested and that had already worked to keep my two employees and also pay the bills," he explains.
With a simpler menu of dumplings, banh mi sandwiches and phos, Phoi-Cavalo has emerged, and is set to continue until the crisis comes to an end, buying chef Brito valuable time to ponder the future of his restaurant.
But Brito’s ingenuity doesn’t end there. As his new project only requires part of the restaurant's kitchen, he will make the space available to other cooks who want to create a delivery service or takeaway. “I think it's a time for us to help each other,” he says. “We are not expecting a miracle, not least because this is a difficult situation for everyone, without exception. But we want the government to look closely at an industry that is so important for the country.”
Even upscale restaurants have pivoted to delivery or takeaway. Lisbon’s Sea Me group of seafood restaurants has also seized the opportunity to test a new project. Olívia is a delivery-only hamburger brand, with a host of options, from veggie to spicy.
Celebrity chef Vítor Sobral, whose Esquina group of restaurants are credited with reinventing Portuguese cuisine, was one of the first to announce delivery and takeaway services. Tasca da Esquina and Peixaria da Esquina have both drawn up exclusive menus during the outbreak, as have Sobral’s bakeries.
Part café, part organic grocery, Comida Independente is offering takeaway options, as well as delivery boxes of assorted produce from local producers hardest hit by the crisis. From fruit and vegetables, to cheese, eggs and meat, the weekly packages are designed to support family farmers most at risk. But in a country with a great wine tradition, the crisis is also affecting what is poured in Portugal’s glasses. Driven by tourism, Portugal’s domestic wine consumption grew last year, and wine represented over half of all the country's exports, totalling 800 million Euros. Which is why wine producers are mobilising to protect their industry.
António Maçanita is just one Portuguese winemaker who is creating new strategies to combat the crisis. People can now buy more than 50 of his wines direct, with half of all proceeds going to the Red Cross for its fight against Covid-19 (in ten days, they raised more than 3000 Euros). Since many of Maçanita’s wines are sold in hotels closed by the lockdown, this is his way of raising his company’s profile in the market.
“In the face of this difficult situation that we live in, my efforts are going to not only keep sales running and my team healthy and protected, but doing it by helping those in need during this health crisis,” says Maçanita.
Bars and restaurants might be closed across the country, but that isn’t stopping Portugal’s wine lovers from getting together and sharing a glass or two – albeit virtually. Wine Hour at Home, a partnership between Chef's Agency and Martins Wine Advisor, brings together sommeliers and wine producers on twice-weekly Instagram broadcasts (@winehourathome), to share ideas and experiences, and give visibility to producers and their wines.
Each producer (such as Loic Pasquet from Bordeaux, or Dominik Huber from Priorat) is invited to open a special bottle, taste it and comment on it online. Followers can buy the bottles in advance (via vivino.com or vineyard.pt) to taste them at the same time, as if they were at the same table. "These solutions will not be enough to compensate for their losses,” says Adriana Fournier, director of events at Chef's Agency. “However, they are very important in the dynamism and visibility of their brands, keeping the consumers closer to the producers.”
Meanwhile, Esporão, one of the most well-known and award-winning wineries in the Alentejo region, has created interactive workshops and tastings with its head chef, Carlos Albuquerque, and winemakers on Instagram. And chef Ljubomir Stanisic from 100 Maneiras Restaurant, promoted a 14-hour online festival called Love Aid with makeup and tattoo artists, bartenders, winemakers and yoga instructors to entertain people via Instagram.
Events have also pivoted. Portugal’s pre-eminent international food symposium, Sangue na Guelra (Blood ‘n’ Guts), featuring Mauro Colagreco, Virgilio Martínez, Andoni Luis Aduriz, and Alex Atala, will now take place online from May 4-5. Tackling topics ranging from sustainability, independent restaurants, and Latin American cuisine, the in-the-flesh version has been rescheduled for October.
“In these times, when people are at home, we want to make people in the gastronomy world talk to each other. There is a general apprehension in the air, and it can be an injection of optimism to allow people to exchange ideas and information,” says Sangue na Guelra founder Paulo Barata.
The coronavirus crisis has brought into sharp focus the power of food as an important unifying factor in Portugal. But while people cannot meet at cafes, bakeries, tascas, and restaurants for the time being, Portugal’s innovative chefs and winemakers are helping to keep those vital connections alive.
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