The coronavirus pandemic is gathering strength again in Europe, and with winter coming, its restaurant industry is struggling. The spring lockdowns were already devastating for many, and now a new set of restrictions has dealt a second blow. Some governments have ordered restaurants closed; others have imposed restrictions curtailing how they operate.
Successful restaurants have always had to adapt quickly, but never has there been a challenge like this. For the De Viering restaurant in Heikruis, just outside Brussels, it seemed earlier this month that the owners’ decision to move the operation into the spacious village church to comply with earlier coronavirus rules was paying off. The reservation book was full, and the kitchen was bustling.
And then Belgium’s prime minister ordered cafes, bars and restaurants shut for at least a month in the face of surging infections. It was a huge blow for chef Heidi Vanhasselt. She and her sommelier husband Christophe Claes had installed a kitchen and new toilets at the church, as well as committing to 10 months’ rent and pouring vast amounts of energy into making the new site work.
“It’s another shock, of course, because, yes, all the investments are made,” Vanhasselt said.
Vanhasselt’s frustration is shared by many in Europe as the hospitality industry reels in the face of the pandemic. Another restaurant on the outskirts of Brussels, Tartufo, was caught off-guard when the first lockdown was announced in the spring. This time, owner Griet Grassin and her husband chef Kayes Ghourabi were ready with plans to ramp up their takeaway service – even offering their own gin with Mediterranean spices for good measure. Still, income will drop by about 70% to 80%.
“I always say to my husband, the restaurant was our first child”, Grassin said. “You want to fight for it… If they hurt it, you want to defend it.”
More than just jobs and revenue are at stake here. Restaurants and cafes lie at the heart of European life. Closures threaten the very fabric of social life by shutting the places where neighbours mix, extended families gather and the seeds of new families are sown. This time, the closures are particularly painful because of the possibility that they might stretch into the Christmas season, stopping everything from pre-holiday office drinks to a special meal on the day.
And food historian Peter Scholliers believes the fear factor will linger long after the virus itself has receded as an immediate threat to public health. “There will be this fear that will linger on for, I think, a couple of months, perhaps years, of meeting people, of hugging people, of shaking hands,” he said. “It will be different in terms of eating and of restaurants.”
(Image Credits: AP)
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