Food and travel reporter, book author and trend expert. Contributor for Gazeta Wyborcza , leading Polish dail and its magazine Wysokie Obcasy, Vogue Poland and various food and lifestyle magazines. Usually on the move, currently #stayingathome in Warsaw, Poland.
Friday 13th was indeed bad news for restaurateurs, cafe owners and confectioners in Poland. To slow down the increase of new cases of coronavirus, the Polish government decided to introduce a state of epidemic in the country. The decree was followed by various restrictions aimed at curbing the epidemic, some of them concerning restaurants and the gastronomy sector. Starting from March 14, all gastronomy businesses – restaurants, cafes, or confectioneries – had to close down to guests. Only takeout and delivery sales have been allowed since. Although the decision could be anticipated, no one was prepared for it. The timing and the scale came as a heavy blow to the industry.
Restaurants are a specific type of business. Many premises operate on a narrow profit margin, between a few and a dozen percent of their turnover, with lots of fixed costs: wages, rent, utilities and of course products – sometimes even dozens of suppliers. But restaurants function not only as food providers, but as meeting places. And it is social interaction that was to be restricted with immediate effect; resigning to stay at home as much as possible was for the people’s own good.
Due to the nature of the business, it was obvious that restaurants would be among businesses that would be hit first, and hard, with the economic aftermath of the pandemic. The rapidly changing situation forced the owners of the gastro-businesses to make quick decisions in order to adapt to the new reality. They reorganized the work schedule and deliveries, switched to takeaway, or even introduced it in the hope for any turnover at all, despite the shutdown. However, in spite of the unprecedented bottleneck situation, many restaurants have taken a seemingly crazy leap: to support those who needed help even more than they did.
It all began with 10 pizzas
“Dear all, the situation is difficult, and that’s a fact. But our problems can hardly be compared to what the medical services are currently going through. That is why, (…) from now on, doctors and hospital staff can get free pizza every day – we’re starting with 10 – so that they can have a quick (and tasty) bite to eat! We realize that preparing food is not something they have time for!”.
This is what a Gdynia-based pizzeria, Muszla, posted on their fanpage on March 14, on the first day of the new regulations.
“We met with our team just before the decision to suspend the gastro-business operations was announced. We expected such information and we were thinking what to do,” said Anna Wylężek from Muszla, inspirator of the #GastroPomaga (#GastroHelps) campaign in Gdynia. Since Muszla has lots of space to spare, and has always been a home to many events and meetings, it was clear that the premises would undergo a huge change in functioning. “At some point, someone came up with the idea that, since our situation couldn’t be improved, we could at least use our resources to help others, especially since the entire medical service is now facing the most difficult time,” reported Wylężek.
The restaurant contacted the City Hospital in Gdynia. “We learned that the situation was already very difficult. The doctors and the staff already had their hands full and were working their heads off. Still, they anticipated the situation to become even more difficult. Since our restaurant complies with all hygiene and safety standards and follows all sanitary guidelines, to minimize the risk, we agreed that meals would be prepared at a specific time and picked up by hospital staff who go to work for the second shift,” explains the owner of Muszla.
Muszla’s idea was received with broad acclamation. “As soon as we went public with our idea in social media, we immediately received a very positive response. In the Tri-City itself, almost all restaurants we knew that were still in operation have joined in to help. We have received considerable support from the City of Gdynia, as well as coordination assistance from the people associated with the Culinary Route of Gdynia and delivery companies, which transport the prepared meals, if necessary,” emphasizes Wylężek.
All hands on deck for the medical staff
The #GastroPomaga initiative has developed rapidly, spilling all over Poland. One of the companies that joined it was the Warsaw-based company ZPR SA, owner of several restaurants, including Focaccia, and Bellotto Hotel. “On the day when the closing of restaurants was announced, we were in shock. We immediately brainstormed on possible courses of action for us as a group of seven restaurants and a large hotel. The answer was that we had people, who were passionate about cooking, so we would cook for doctors and the elderly,” said Michał Molenda, chef and managing director of the group. “It’s not much, but we are glad that we can contribute something, and at the same time give our team the opportunity to work,” he stressed.
Every day, representatives of the Food to Gate delivery service determine how many meals are needed, and where. “The form of delivery is also arranged, to be the most convenient and the safest for the doctors,” said Molenda, adding that despite the unfortunate situation for the company, the employees got very involved, and in high spirits, because they saw purpose it in supporting the doctors.
Along with the #GastroPomaga initiative, the Posiłki dla Lekarzy (Meals for Doctors) campaign was launched, with a similar purpose. As part of the campaign, funds are collected on Zrzutka.pl crowdfunding portal, to cover the cost of meals sent by restaurants. On 22 March, the amount collected was over PLN 540K. Over 500 venues from all over Poland joined the campaign – pizzerias, restaurants, bistros, pierogi bars. They are connected with the facilities in need by the organizers who supervise orders and instructions.
Yet another nationwide campaign was called “Wzywamy Posiłki” (“Sustenance Calling”). It brings together restaurants from all over Poland, including such industry tycoons as McDonalds or Costa Coffee. Currently, over 20 medical facilities have been included in the campaign. According to their site, more than 10,000 meals were distributed within the first week.
Small initiatives with a big heart
However, the help of Polish gastro-business includes not only spectacular, national campaigns. It is the sum of spontaneous reactions of individual venues, even the smallest, to what is happening.
Approx. 20 Warsaw restaurants run by Vietnamese restaurateurs, and dozens of suppliers, now operating jointly under the name Pogotowie Gastronomiczne dla Szpitali i Służb Warszawa (Gastronomic Emergency Rescue for Hospitals and Medical Services Warsaw), provides food to hospitals. “Almost all restaurants are closed, but we really wanted to join the campaign, to fight together with the medical services until everyone gets well,” said Dang Liliana from the Horapa restaurant in Warsaw.
French bistro and bakery Charlotte, usually buzzing with conversations, is completely empty these days. Its managers decided to help the local medical services in Warsaw, without waiting for the official decision. For example, they deliver to the Hospital for Infectious Diseases in the district of Wola. “It was solely their own initiative,” admits Justyna Kosmala, co-owner of Charlotte. Marek Brudzik, manager of the Charlotte Bistro in Krakow added: “In this difficult situation, the most important task is to help other people. It is true that gastronomy is in a crisis when the turnover plunges by over 90%. The situation is becoming critical. But there are places where things are even worse and the entire staff works at 200 percent. This is why we wanted to contribute.”
Michał Ziemlewicz from the Warsaw-based company Best CS has been delivering several dozen liters of coffee daily to the hospitals. ““It was a natural response. My fiancee is a nurse and I am a barista and salesman, working for a company selling catering equipment. I decided to use our equipment and bring fresh hot coffee to the staff. I asked my coffee roaster colleagues for coffee and brewed the first few dozen liters using the company equipment. For now, I operate alone, but I plan to band my friends from the coffee world to help me,” he explained.
In Białystok, medical personnel has been fed since the restaurant shutdown by Pierogarnia Soodi. It was quickly followed by a dozen, and then over 40 venues, which took up the initiative of the owner of the pierogi bar, Dawid Siniło. On the other hand, a Poznań-based venue Whisky in the Jar delivered 250 meals during a single delivery!
Apart from meals, gastro-businesses hand over fruits, drinks, as well as protective gloves, masks and disinfectants (Good Lood from Wrocław).
Not forgetting the underprivileged
Support for gastronomy goes not only to medical services, but also of others who are most vulnerable due to the epidemic. One of the first to react was Katia Roman-Trzaska, the founder of the Little Chef culinary school in Warsaw. She decided to use her infrastructure to prepare warm, nutritious takeaway soups for the needy. Every day, a box with several dozen jars appears outside the studio door, and additional portions are sent to hospitals. She was followed by Zuzanna and Michał Marchocki, owners of Secret Life Cafe and Ósma Kolonia, a small cafe and bistro run by in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district. Instead of switching to takeaway right away, they first decided to cater several dozen meals to the needy in their neighborhood.
Grupa Warszawa, owners of Syreni Śpiew and other venues, decided to take care of the elderly or those homebound for some other reason. PLN 25 sent to a dedicated account on Zrzutka.pl as part of the #PosiłekDlaSeniora (#MealForSenior) program, buys a four-course, balanced menu that will be delivered to a requested address. “The #PosiłekdlaSeniora program we came up with is a chance to help not only the needy elderly, but also gastronomy employees who were left with no chance for employment in the current situation,” said Kinga Rylska from Grupa Warszawa.
Gastro-world united against the shutdown
The various forms of support on the part of restaurants have been going on in Poland for over a week, and have been huge. But examples of support provided by gastronomy can be found in other countries, too. A two-star Copenhagen restaurant Alchemist closed to guests due to the pandemic, but has been using its kitchens to prepare meals for the homeless, using products donated by other companies. The Taubenkobel restaurant in Austria, noted as one of the most interesting gastronomic destinations in the country, now closed due to coronavirus, has been preparing over 100 meals every day, to be distributed by Caritas Burgenland. José Andrés, one of the most notable restaurateurs in the US, owner of a two-star restaurant MiniBar, has transformed its most important premises into social kitchens, serving meals for the needy. In turn, in the capital of Austria chefs of a two-star restaurant Steiereck cook meals for the medical personnel. A farm-to-table restaurant Haoma in Bangkok, unable to serve guests, decided to cook meals for the needy in exchange for donations.
Gastronomy closes ranks and innovates
At the same time, the restaurants themselves are also fighting for survival. Adapting to new, non-standard conditions and changing consumer behavior, they are implementing new forms of sales, including serving take-out meals or home delivery. Sometimes, to strengthen the efforts, they merge their activities and offers into a single, larger menu. They also change their business models, from restaurants to stores with semi-products for dishes that can be prepared at home. Others, to minimize the losses caused by the crisis, start selling vouchers to be redeemed after the situation has stabilized (Finebite and RSVP platforms introduced voucher processing as their new functionalities). Similar to #GastroPomaga, foodie influencers and loyal guests encourage #supportinggastronomy and small local catering businesses.
Restaurateurs, chefs and experts share their ways to survive in this unusual situation in a group founded by Agnieszka Małkiewicz with the consulting company FOR Solutions. The group offers the latest information on the changes in the operation of gastronomic establishments, or legal support. “Now is the moment when restaurateurs ‘fight for survival for their own sake, and for their people’, as one Polish restaurateur put it, and cannot waste time looking for information. At the same time, they need both professional and mental support. That is why we have provided them with online space #restauratorzyrazem at #solutionsFORrestaurant. This way, maybe we can survive together,” explained Agnieszka Małkiewicz.
“We will try to help out as long as possible, and unfortunately the situation is also very difficult for us. For now, we are trying to focus on what we can do. We receive lots of appreciation and information about how much fun such food support is. This is very motivating and we hope that everything will return to normal as soon as possible,” said Anna Wylężek of Muszla.