Switzerland Eats Out Again, Showing Post-Pandemic Future - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Customers at Café du Midi in Fribourg, Switzerland, on May 11, 2020.
SourceFABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty

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Switzerland’s hospitality sector, the first in Europe to open up after the lockdowns, could offer pointers to the rest of the world waiting to dine out again.

By Sam Jones

This past week, the Restaurant was one of the few eating establishments in Europe to have a full house.

When customers came back to the prosaically named, two Michelin-starred Zurich venue for the first time in two months on Thursday, it was almost as if nothing had changed: Tables were spaced discreetly apart; waitstaff were efficient and mindful of private space, fastidious in their attention to detail and, of course, hygiene. 

This week Switzerland became the first country in Europe to end restrictions on its hospitality sector — offering a peek, albeit through the lens of the wealthy alpine state’s relatively rarefied dining scene, of what might lie ahead for restaurants, cafés and bars in a post-COVID-19 world.

Switzerland acted early to contain the spread of the coronavirus. On Thursday, health authorities reported just 50 new COVID-19 cases, bringing its total to 30,463, with 1,589 deaths. 

Restarting the hospitality sector is a key priority for Bern as the country emerges from lockdown — a message the Swiss government has pushed hard this week. More than 260,000 people are employed in the hospitality sector. In many cantons, more people work in restaurants than in shops.

People want to go out again.

Georg Steiner, head of food and beverage, the Dolder Grand

On Tuesday, Councilor Alain Berset, Switzerland’s minister for the interior, sat down for a coffee — and photo shoot — with Daniel Koch, the country’s chief epidemiologist, in the Café du Gothard in Fribourg. The pair sat safely apart, albeit sans masks. “Switzerland has proved its ability to adapt quickly,” Berset said, adding that he was “cautious, but optimistic” that life would return to normal. 

“People want to go out again,” says Georg Steiner, head of food and beverage at the Dolder Grand, the opulent hotel perched above Zurich in which the Restaurant is the flagship venue. “They want to enjoy things; for many there are a lot of events to celebrate that they missed during the past few weeks.” 

With its huge kitchens, ample space and deep resources, the hotel has been relatively well positioned. Over the past two months, it offered a takeout service. A pared-down selection of Michelin-quality dishes alongside high-end comfort food such as its chef’s take on Backhendl — fried chicken from the Austrian state of Styria — has become hugely popular. Last weekend the hotel dispatched 350 gourmet takeout meals. 

Two tables had to be removed from the Restaurant for it to reopen, but most other changes, the Dolder’s management hope, will not diminish guests’ experiences: Menus will be on paper, to throw away after use; the wine list will be on an iPad that can be wiped clean; and guests will have to look after their own jackets or leave them in their cars.

SWITZERLAND-GENEVA-COVID-19-EASING MEASURES-SECOND PHASE

A recently reopened restaurant in Geneva on May 11, 2020.

Source Li Ye/Xinhua via Getty

Mesa, another prominent restaurant in Zurich, with one Michelin star, has also seen a spate of bookings as it reopened this week. “It’s a little slower than normal, but we are busy. We have a lot of friends and people who know us who are coming back,” says owner Lisa Mühlemann.

Mesa had to remove only one table from its main dining room. “We are normally very generously spaced anyway,” Mühlemann notes. “We have many people … who don’t want to be overheard.” 

Mesa waitstaff will have to wear masks, Mühlemann says. And, for diners who request it, a Plexiglas screen is available to go across the center of tables. Hand sanitizer made by a local gin distillery, Deux Frères, will be available for guests throughout the restaurant. Lightly perfumed with botanicals and available in attractive glass chemists bottles, it has become a hit among the design cognoscenti of Zurich.

But as venues cautiously open their doors in Swiss towns and cities, it is clear the new rules will be unavoidably punitive for a business built around conviviality and traffic.

Restaurants are “social places,” says Rudi Bindella Jr, head of the Bindella group, which runs upmarket and popular Italian eateries across Switzerland.

The current rules from Swiss public health authorities do not permit more than four guests to a table. Standing service is not allowed. Every group of people must be at least two 6.5 feet apart. 

Some Zurich restaurants, in particular those geared toward younger groups dining out on weekends rather than families or businesspeople, have removed between 30 and 50 percent of their seats to comply with the requirements.

Bars are even harder-pressed. Kasheme, a popular live-music venue in the former workers’ quarter of Zurich, will reopen this week, but guests will have to book tables in a space that would ordinarily be crowded with customers.

Most restaurateurs do not expect the coming months to be easy, particularly given the uncertainty over tourism.

“Gradual reopening is a challenge, especially in business management terms,” says Casimir Platzer, president of lobbying group GastroSuisse. “The industry will need medium- and long-term support measures.” 

The sector is also at the mercy of how safe the public feels. Every piece of government messaging is critical. “Everything is possible this summer,” says Mühlemann. “We’ve all got our fingers crossed that we can carry on as we are doing now.” 

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By Sam Jones

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