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.
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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