Closed Due To Coronavirus: View From A Rural German Restaurant

Tucked away in a isolated corner of Germany, the owners of a rural restaurant have somehow managed to make ends meet for 17 years. But that was before the coronavirus outbreak.

An empty table at restaurant 'Zum Waldbad' in Gehlberg, Germany.
An empty table at restaurant "Zum Waldbad" in Gehlberg, Germany.
André Eube

Restaurants in cities have found creative ways to adapt and make a bit of money during lockdown, delivering food to people's homes or selling meals through an open window. But how are restaurants based in the countryside or small villages getting by? Since 2003, second-generation restaurateur André Eube and his wife Margitta have welcomed diners at Zum Waldbad, their restaurant in Gehlberg, deep in the forest of Thuringia. At 750m above sea level, their establishment is best reached by car. Eube offers traditional Thuringian cuisine without any frills, and also rents out three holiday lets. Here he recounts his experiences as a restaurant owner during lockdown.

GEHLBERG — Wikipedia describes Gehlberg as one of "the most isolated places' in Germany. The nearest village is a 10-km drive away. And it has just 550 residents, with the population ever decreasing. Our small, long-established restaurant relies, therefore, on tourists and regular visitors from the Netherlands or Berlin. Before the coronavirus epidemic, we welcomed between 150 and 200 guests every week.

But since March 16, our restaurant has been closed, and we still don't know when we'll be able to reopen. That's a real problem. I'm wondering who will decide which businesses are allowed to start trading again. For example, beauticians and hairdressers have much closer contact with customers than our staff do in the restaurant.

I have already written a thank you note to the State Bank of Thuringia. We applied for financial support due to coronavirus and received it two weeks later. For a business of our size, it came to 5,000 euros. I was surprised by how straightforward the process was. All we had to do was submit our trading license and bank details. Our fixed monthly costs are around 2,500 euros, so with that money we can hold out for two months.

The solutions that many restaurants in cities have been turning to simply don't work for us. We can't, for example, offer takeaway meals. There aren't any tourists at the moment, so there's no demand. Most people who live in Gehlberg are pensioners who know how to cook and don't need our food. On a particularly sunny day, perhaps a few locals will drive up to the mountains and find us, but even if they buy our food, where are they supposed to eat it? They have to stay 50 meters away from the restaurant, as we're not allowed to encourage people to hang around closer than that.

At Easter we went out for a walk and bought a sausage from a restaurant that was still able to sell snacks. All the benches nearby were cordoned off with warning tape, by order of the local council. Fair enough, you can eat a sausage while walking, unlike schnitzel or Thuringian specialities such as potato dumplings. But what would have been the problem if we'd stopped for a few minutes to sit and eat on a bench?

The vast majority of people are abiding by social distancing laws. Only a few idiots who are deliberately flouting them, and as a restaurant owner you could easily identify those people and kick them out. You could also ensure that all benches and tables in your restaurant are 1.5 meters apart. It wouldn't be a problem for us to put that kind of rule in place. I know there's no one-size-fits-all solution, but we could at least discuss these ideas for how to go forward.

Instead it has already been decided that from July 1, the rate of VAT on food items in Germany will be 7%, instead of 19%. That should increase our profit margin, but I'm wondering what the media will make of it. Restaurant owners might be labeled greedy if they don't pass that saving on to customers. But we need to make up for lost revenue, and food has become more expensive during the coronavirus crisis. Unfortunately, no one will remember that when they're sitting in their local restaurant again.


Outside view of "Zum Waldbad" restaurant.Photo: Ralph Kuhles

I think there will be a similar situation to what we saw when the euro was introduced. There was outrage against restaurant owners, as people claimed they'd just kept the same prices in euros as they'd charged in marks. When the VAT rate rises again — probably around June 30, 2021 at the latest — and prices go up, restaurant owners will come under fire again. I'm sure of it.

I also think that once the economy is opened up again, people will be more careful about how they spend their money. Lots of people will be worried about losing their jobs and will have gotten used to spending less. During the lockdown, they'll have realized that eating out isn't a necessity. There'll be a long-term impact, probably for three or four years.

At the moment, we hope at least that tourism will soon be up and running again, partly because we own three holiday lets. There's a lot of demand and we have lots of bookings. As soon as we're allowed to rent them out again, we'll have part of our income back. And tourism also provides the clientele for our restaurant.

I believe that the restaurant industry is being overlooked during this crisis because there isn't enough lobbying for us. The organizations that are meant to represent us are weak. It's to be expected, as many restaurant owners spend most of their time poring over the stove or behind the bar. They often do everything themselves, working in the office or as waiters. At the end of the day, they don't have the energy to contribute to an industry association.

Restaurant owners also don't have a real network. Most of us are independent and like doing things for ourselves. We enjoy putting the world to rights at the regulars' table, but often we don't even know the people who run the nearest restaurant on a personal level. In the current situation, we're not in a strong position. We don't know how to come together and tell politicians what we need.

Our restaurant in Gehlberg is a small business that isn't important to the wider world, or to anyone other than us. Before coronavirus, we got by for 17 years on our own, without needing any outside support. But without any income, we simply can't last much longer.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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