What happened to restaurants in Sweden, where there was no lockdown

Open restaurants, government funds are substantial but there are still many problems. Few clients, and many places will have to close or change format

05-06-2020
An image taken from France24’s piece on the

An image taken from France24’s piece on the "Swedish exception"

«It’s a catastrophe. We’ve lost between 75 and 90% turnover since Coronavirus arrived in Sweden, early in March. We closed various restaurants because there’s no point in keeping them open», Jennica Jonsson, director of Stureplansgruppen, a group of restaurants, hotels, night clubs and bars which includes some of the most popular establishments in Stockholm said.

The Swedish capital was one of the areas hit hardest by Covid-19 yet, nonetheless, the city, like the rest of the country, remained open and the same applied to public transport, shops and restaurants. At the moment there are some 3 thousand deaths for a population of around 10 million citizens. The Government has forbidden groupings of over 50 people and recommended working from home, keeping a distance of two metres and avoiding contacts with the elderly. «It’s not true that the Swedes are living normally as usual. Most people stay at home and the hospitality industry is in great difficulty», says Carl-Johan Swanson, head of communication at Visita, the organization that groups the industry’s businesses.

Carl-Johan Swanson, head of communication at Visita

Carl-Johan Swanson, head of communication at Visita

Carl-Johan starts to give some data. «The hospitality industry employs 200 thousand people in Sweden. Now 16,500 have received a redundancy notice, 13.500 with a job on call are at home, and we have some 35 thousand more people on layoff. Bankruptcies have increased by 163% in April, compared to 2019».

«The Swedish government has approved various decrees to help the entire society but not with a special attention to the hospitality industry», says Linda Nöremark, from the government’s office. For instance, you can put your staff on layoff for 80% of the time for a short time, and the state pays for 50% of rent for a limited time. «At this moment the government must decide whether to help us with other fixed costs, we still don’t know but it would be essential to survive», Jennica Jonsson says.

PM & Vänner

PM & Vänner

Per Bengtsson is the owner and creative leader of restaurant PM & Vänner, two Michelin stars, now also a hotel, bar and bakery, in the small town of Växjö in the centre of Sweden. He explains: «Our staff is on layoff and we only work 30%, but all the departments are open. I do all I can to cover the shifts: I deliver take away and work as a night porter three times a week». Despite the difficult situation – the hotel has lost 90% of its turnover while the restaurant has lost 40% - Per is still grateful that he can stay open. «I could keep all my team and I won’t need to start over again, as I would have should I have closed completely. We’re like an A league team: if you train less, or change a player, your performance will suffer for sure. I feel the utmost respect for my colleagues abroad», he says almost in tears.

The Michelin Trail by PM & Vänner and Daniel Berlin

The Michelin Trail by PM & Vänner and Daniel Berlin

PM & Vänner and another starred restaurant, Daniel Berlin (named after its chef-patron, who was also a speaker at Identità Golose. It has two Michelin stars and is in Tomelilla, 200 km south, in the countryside of Scania), decided to collaborate, creating an itinerary between the two restaurants called The Michelin Trail. They offer guests to taste their tasting menus; two different experiences for the price of one. «We had planned this for international tourists, who have stayed at home. But now we’ve had many bookings from Sweden», says Bengtsson and he adds: «Neither I nor Daniel have investors supporting us. Together we will try to leave this crisis behind us with our head held high».

Tastings at The Winery Hotel

Tastings at The Winery Hotel

The first in the industry to be hit in Sweden were hotels and other structures that work with the corporate industry and organise meetings and conferences. «We lost 75% of our turnover in April. We’re now 24 people working full time, instead of the 73 in early March» Claes Anerud, director at The Winery Hotel, just off Stockholm, explains. He says most hotel chains in Sweden will manage until September, but then the situation will need to change. «At The Winery Hotel we’ve quickly changed strategy. We’ve downsized the organization and now focus on leisure instead of the business segment. This was already a trend and Coronavirus sped things up». According to Claes  hotel will need to become a destination per se, with a clear identity, given the business segment has been decreasing for a long time now.

Anna Norström

Anna Norström

Anna Norström, Swedish food journalist, says restaurant without a strong identity will have difficulties, «if before you worked just because you were close to a theatre or some offices, now you’re out. Instead, those with a clear identity or important investors, like many starred restaurants, will make it». This is also confirmed by Jonas Mattsson of Caspeco, leader in Sweden for software solutions for restaurants with a turnover of around 1.5-2 million euros per year. He says that 20% of their clients decided to close, at least for a short time, because there was no point in staying open. «70% of our clients are in difficulty. Those most affected are sports bars and night clubs, which of course have no clients. Plus those with lots of debt and high fixed costs are in deep trouble», he says.

Take away has increased but doesn’t cover the lost revenues. It’s rather a way to keep in touch with clients. «It’s like putting a band-aid on an amputated limb», according to Anna Norström.

Instead, there are those who believe things will continue more or less like before. Like in the small town of Falkenberg, on the coast south of Göteborg, Besmir Balaj and Ville Illola run pizzera Lilla Napoli, according to many the best pizzeria in Sweden (the two owners have studied and lived in Naples). «We’ve always been full and it seems like in our time there is no Coronavirus. I don’t know if people believe in destiny, or why it is so», says Ville.

Lilla Napoli

Lilla Napoli

He says they did not have to fire or layoff anyone. The greatest change is that there are less guests at the same time, since tables must be set two metres apart. «We explain guests we have to do multiple shifts, so we ask them to leave as soon as they’ve finished eating. Also: before we didn’t do take away. Pizza has to be eaten right away. Now we have it, we had no choice given that at this time we have less tables.

Restaurateurs and waiters are not required to wear masks or gloves; all those with whom we’ve talked are happy of this, because they believe it would be hard to create a nice experience to your clients, if you had to wear them.

«I believe the State has been very vague and has left lots of responsibility upon the restaurateurs, who do all they can to survive. They must control that all the rules are followed, while the government doesn’t control those who go for a picnic in the park, or when there are queues at the supermarket», says Anna Norström. For now the controlling commission has closed a dozen of restaurants in Stockholm which didn’t respect distancing.

Eataly Stockholm

Eataly Stockholm

Eataly Stockholm has always been open, but just one floor out of two, and even one of the restaurants was open, with seats outside. «The offer of Italian products is always working and the cooking and tasting classes continue, even though only for 10 people at a time, instead of 15 like before», hospitality manager Giulia Mangili explains. She believes the Swedes do not seem very preoccupied: «In the underground people sit close to each other, but for sure there are less elderly and in general people going outside», she says.

Anna Norström believes that the restaurant industry in Sweden after Coronavirus will be very different compared to the past: «It will be less fine dining and more casual. People will have less money and many small artisans who sold their products to this industry won’t survive. We’ll see more private dinners and more personal chefs. I also believe in new intelligent solutions, such as catering, and creative options so that you can stay outdoors».

Per Bengtsson

Per Bengtsson

Per Bengtsson of PM & Vänner ends: «I believe that, like after every crisis, people will want to stay together and receive lots of love. So avantgarde and experimental restaurants, unless they are really fantastic, will find it hard. But there will always be those who want to dine in a high-quality place that treats guests with lots of attention».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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