What can we learn from the Swedish restaurant experience? Maybe some good news?

Linkedin, by Ronnie Somerville
19th May 2020

Sweden has NOT had a “lockdown” and has allowed restaurants to stay open.

The data from the link at the bottom of this article show that per head of population Sweden has had many more deaths than neighbouring Norway, but about 3/4’s of the UK Covid deaths. (And a similar concentration of deaths in care homes.)

The Scandinavian country has allowed schools for under-16s, cafes, bars, restaurants and businesses to stay open while urging people and businesses to respect social distancing guidelines. There has been much argument about whether the Swedish approach has been better than other countries’ approach.

What I want to do is to look at the Swedish experience from a different angle, and ask the question, ”Are the answers about what the restaurant scene will look like in countries coming out of a lockdown to be found ‘hidden in plain site’ in Sweden right now?”

This is a quote from Swedish Government instructions: “All (restaurant, bar, nightclub and café) owners must make a plan for how to limit the spread of infection. We will only allow seated table service, no counter service or hanging at bar counters. We are also urging them to make sure there is enough space between tables and so on”.

In April Swedish authorities had warned they would be stepping up inspections to ensure establishments were respecting social distancing guidelines and actively closed down bars and restaurants that were “packed”.

This quote from a Vanity Fair interview with a Swedish chef is instructive:

“By the time the Swedish government began imposing distancing regulations on restaurants in March and sending around inspectors to ensure they were upheld, the Michelin-starred Ekstedt, in Stockholm, had already removed tables from the dining room to ensure adequate space between the remaining ones. Where it once seated 60 diners per service, the restaurant is now doing 30 to 38. The staff has also shrunk; like many high-level restaurants around the world, many of its cooks and servers were not Swedish, and those employees left for their home countries at the start of the crisis. With only 10 of his original staff of 30 remaining, chef-owner Niklas Ekstedt cut his tasting menu down to three courses (plus amuse-bouches), and adjusted the price from roughly $100 per person to about $70.

And just like that, his restaurant found a new audience. “We were always fully booked for the weekend, so a lot of locals just thought it was a restaurant for traveling gourmets or foodies,” the chef says. “What we’re experiencing now is that we have a brand-new clientele that have never been to the restaurant, a lot of whom actually live in the neighborhood. We’ve switched from being an international fine-dining restaurant to a local power-diner restaurant.”

Although total sales aren’t meeting pre-coronavirus levels, the restaurant is doing enough business, Ekstedt says, to make it through the crisis.”

Is there a takeaway from this?

1) Restaurants with international guests will have to pivot to catering for a local audience. Places like London and Edinburgh in the UK will find this the hardest.

2) People in post lockdown countries need to “Behave like the Swedes”, self-control will be essential.

3) “Oddities” of Swedish social behaviour, i.e. the tendency to associate in much more limited social groups than people from other countries, will need to be replicated by “social bubbles”.

4) Social distancing will have a reducing effect on covers.

5) Rigorous policing of offending establishments will be necessary, with closure and “loss of licence” being a penalty.

6) Rigorous policing of social distancing may be necessary, with lack of compliance falling into the category of “public disorder” offences. (The type of demonstrations where social distancing is not observed, for example in certain US states by alt. right groups, would fall into this category. One can see that some people just don’t want to “Behave like the Swedes” 🙂 )

7) Simple but rather obvious public health measures like no-touch doors, that maybe should have been introduced a long time ago, do make a difference.

8) A health risk-aware public can change their everyday behaviours… good sneezing habits , hand washing, isolating at the first suspicion of symptoms for example. These changes do make an important difference.

But I would argue that the Swedish experience of the last few weeks, which is something not that removed from pre-Covid normality, is the best guide we have to post lockdown life, especially for restaurants.

Of course, this all comes at a financial cost and restaurants will have to bear much of this.

The caveats are, if restaurants can:

1) Persuade customers that it is safe to eat out, by rigorous and obvious cleaning and minimising contact.

2) Spread business to shoulder times to compensate for having less operational tables.

3) Reduce table turn times to compensate for having less operational tables..

4) Generate extra income from collection and delivery.

5) Expand into other physical areas like basements, pavements and “public” space with changes in planning regulations. Perhaps using marquees.

6) Be granted support and reductions in taxation.

Then… maybe, the future for restaurants post lockdown in locked down countries is not quite as bleak as it looked a few weeks back.