19: Here We Go Again, Christmas Edition
A moment, between press conferences, to ponder what's next for julefrokost and beyond
I had thought I’d be writing about caviar or chefs’ visas this week, but, bam, here we are waiting for the next round of Covid restrictions. So this Bord looks at what the government’s press conferences (like Scrooge’s ghosts—past, present, and future) foretell when it comes to the holiday season and beyond.
I started thinking about it in part because when I’m not working on Bord or writing about litigious mermaids and sexually sterile salmon I teach undergraduates at DIS here in Copenhagen. And although I am therefore probably biased, it struck me that the school had found a great solution to whole julefrokost cancellation conundrum—one that is based on seeing themselves as part of a community and behaving accordingly. A solution, perhaps, that more businesses should be encouraged to adopt.
Thanks for reading,
Do you know that line from the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life? The one that goes “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings?” Here in Denmark, we have for a while seemed to be living through the hospitality-world Black Mirror version of that: every time the prime minister calls a press conference, a Christmas lunch gets cancelled.
Or rather, a lot of them do.
There was a press conference yesterday that warned of new Covid restrictions on the way and there’s another coming this evening that will lay out the specifics. Word on the street is that nightlife will be shut down, restaurants will have to reintroduce masks and close at midnight, and there will be indoor assembly restrictions again. We’ll know for sure in a few hours.
But in the meantime, the brief interregnum between the two press conferences highlights the strange situation of suspended animation in which many restaurants have found themselves for some time: a wave of cancellations coming at a critical point in their financial year; another wave of guests seemingly rushing to eat out before the crackdown comes; everyone hoping to get across the line of New Year’s before a new lockdown comes (if it comes), but worried about what might happen if it doesn’t. And through it all, a question that hovers: what do restaurants and their guests owe each other at this time?
The period before Christmas is high season for restaurants almost everywhere, but here in Denmark, julefrokost (which translates literally as “Christmas lunch” but which refers to pretty much any holiday meal that involves a lot of food, alcohol, and the kind of transgressive behavior that has gotten more than one Danish politician fired) is an especially important tradition and celebrated by businesses, organizations, and groups of friends. It also represents a significant portion of many restaurants’ annual revenue. So it’s no wonder that one of the main question on every pasty reporter’s lips at these press conferences is: can we still have julefrokost?
As of this writing, the government has maintained said yes, albeit with recommended modifications. But even if that remains the case after this evening, many restaurants have already discovered it doesn’t take formal restrictions or an outright ban to change people’s behavior. “As soon as there’s a press conference--even before it’s held, when it’s just announced—we get cancellations,” says Juliette Rasmussen, co-owner of the venerable Restaurant Schønnemann. “It doesn’t matter what the prime minister says; people are going on feeling, not reality.” Ursula Waltemath, co-founder of Restaurant Brace, agrees. “Every word they say, every emotion— if they transmit fear, if they transmit anything, it just makes people go crazy,” she says of the government spokespeople. “A restaurant can go from breaking even to negative, because of one press conference.”
The Dec 1 press conference called to urge more vaccinations in the face of the omicron variant was a case in point; even though no new restrictions were announced, many places felt the impact. “Before, we had 130 on the books for the next day at Palægade,” says Kristian Arpe-Møller, who co-owns that restaurant and the others in the Formel B group. “We ended up with 90.”
The situation is harder for restaurants that host julefrokost for medium to large-sized companies; not long ago Formel B had a company cancel a booking for 60 people two days before the julefrokost was to take place. But at least among smaller restaurants, the impact has, at least until now, been more or less counter-balanced by the massive demand for reservations; restaurants are still enjoying the effects of all that pent-up desire to eat out that the lockdowns produced. “We’ve gotten a lot more cancellations, but we also have a longer waitlist than ever,” says Arpe-Møller. “So as long as we have some advance warning, we’re usually able to fill it back up.”
Some restaurants have even noticed a contrary effect, thanks to the lag between the announcement of restrictions and their implementation. “We can literally see the cancellations start flowing into our inbox as the press conferences take place,” says Waltemath. “At the same time, we’ve also noticed something a little funny: let's say the Prime Minister says this rule from a certain day. We see a lot of people booking for before that--they want to cram it in while they still can.”
Nevertheless, the high number of cancellations has two organizations that represent the industry, Horesta and DRC, reminding their members that so long as there aren’t restrictions like an assembly ban, they can hold on to deposits and charge cancellation fees. “The mere fact that there is corona in the society is not a force majeure situation,” says Horesta’s head of business law, Kaare Friis Petersen, in reference to the clauses in contracts the limit liability in case of natural disasters and other unavoidable castastrophes. “It must be impossible to hold the agreed event before force majeure is relevant.”
But even so, many are reluctant to do so. Arpe-Møller says the Formel B group decided not to charge a fee so that “the people cancelling now because of COVID will come back after. This way, they kind of feel like they owe us. They know that if they cancel a party 48 hours before they’re supposed to arrive, that they need to come back later.”
And if there’s another lockdown? At this point in the pandemic, hard-won experience has taught just about everyone that they’ll be able—once again—to adjust. “We've been challenged to our cores so frequently by now that we’ve all evolved our ability to adapt,” says Waltemath. “So we’ll just figure it out.” Still, she admits, another lockdown will be a blow. “Not just from a financial perspective but also morally and psychologically. We've all been working so hard this year, not just our team but all of our colleagues too. But when you get to this phase of satisfaction where you’re feeling like, okay, now we can keep going, to have it taken away again puts you further down.”
Over the past year, Schønnemann learned that by curbing the several weeks a year when it was closed, it could more or less make up the lost income. “Now we’re open 324 days a year, so we’ve built a safe home for ourselves ,” says Rasmussen. “But I worry about the restaurants that don’t have that kind of margin. The small, young restaurants that are already doing as much as they can are going to have it quite hard, and our industry needs them to keep pushing the creativity in Copenhagen.”
Yet as Arpe-Møller points out, another lockdown isn’t the most worrying scenario. Far worse, he says, would be something in between. “If there’s a lockdown, then there’s compensation,” he says. “But if the government just says that we need to stay inside and take care, and people decide on their own to stop going out, then it will be really, really bad.” He’s still traumatized by the memory of the weekend before the first lockdown, back in March 2020. “It was a Saturday night and we were only half full--that had never happened before.”
While everyone holds their collective breath over the julefrokost future, there is one alternative worth pointing out. Over two weeks ago, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad made the difficult decision to cancel its annual julefrokost. (With around 1000 foreign students in its charge, most of them about to return to the US, as well as 250 faculty and staff members, the school’s leadership felt they couldn’t take the risk.) This year’s edition had been planned for Bings in Vesterbro, and when the school decided to cancel, it agreed with the venue that it would reschedule the event as a summer party in 2022, so that its deposit remains in place. But DIS also went a step further: it issued a gift card in the amount of 1200 kroner to every single invitee, to be used at any restaurant in one of four restaurant groups.
The school made this decision, says director Malene Torp, so that its faculty and staff could still enjoy a celebration, albeit on a small scale. But DIS was also thinking about restaurants. ”It’s very important for us to have partnerships with the local community,” says Torp. “Many of these restaurants are places that we use on a regular basis, and we know we play an important part in the economy of our local community’s restaurant scene. Frankly, we would normally be giving them more business than we’ve been able to this year. So even though we’ve been hit by Covid ourselves, we decided to come up with the extra money.”
A cautious approach to public health that benefits restaurants and supports the larger community? Why, it’s a Christmas miracle.