The Swedish Case

22 Jun. 2020
Tjoget's Andreas Bergman on social distancing and hospitality's future

Last week, we talked with several bar entrepreneurs across Europe. They were cautious but, for the most part, optimistic. They had just reopened, though, and were still in the process of finding their feet in this new reality of ours. One country, however, has been living in that new reality for over three months now. Sweden has been in the news for its unorthodox approach to the pandemic but few have paid attention to the situation of its hospitality industry. We have asked Stockholm-based Andreas Bergman, co-owner of World’s 50 Best Bar Tjoget, Paradiso and Positano a few questions about his experience — they might be eerily familiar to what awaits many of the bars that are just reopening across Europe.

Because no lockdown was ever mandated by the government, Andreas’ businesses never closed. But social distancing rules and recommendations were put in place and, much as bars in Athens, Madrid or Paris are now seeing, this has important effects on the bottom line. « We pretty much lost all our business overnight », Andreas says. « We’re only allowed seating guests now and with distancing measures, at Tjoget we went from having 100 sitting guests and 200 standing to about 75 seating ». Tjoget is at heart a party bar and this basically kills the mood. « In Sweden we don’t have that speakeasy, sitting down cocktail culture. Here’s it’s people standing, DJs, party. It’s much calmer now ». 

Although things are looking up with people now familiar with rules and others coming out of their self-quarantine « excited to head back to restaurants and bars », Andreas says they’re only back to 40% of their pre-pandemic income. The strain it has put on the teams is clear, and they had to let go 5 employees, a heartbreaking decision: « they were young kids, just making their way into the work scene ». Other employees now work half-time (with the other half of their wages covered by the government) and not necessarily in the position they were hired for. « We have bartenders or sommeliers working in the dining room. We need to pull together and help out wherever we can », Andreas explains. They’ve also streamlined their cocktail and food menus in order to reduce prep time. « We’re in survival mode, we’re happy we’re still working and able to pay staff, rent, providers… »

Hopefully, Andreas says, restrictions will be lifted in September, but they’re working with the longer term in mind. « We’d be happy if we could back to having some standing guests, a full bar and a full restaurant in January but who knows. Maybe it’s November this year, maybe we get Covid 2021. We can plan all we want, the future is volatile. »

None of this is particularly positive. And this might become the new normal for many bars. Still, Andreas is quite optimistic. Surprisingly so. Many experts are saying people will avoid bars and crowded spaces and that the coming recession will be the death knell for many. He is having none of it — and in part, his reflection is inspired by their experience at their newest place, Positano, an Italian restaurant and bar located in a luxury department store in the centre of Stockholm . « 20000 people walk by there every day. Or rather, before March they did… People are just not going to shops, they’re not going to city centres but… they’re going out where they live ». Paradiso and Tjoget are neighborhood bars and they’ve been doing better because locals have supported them. « Believe or not but I’m very happy to be in the restaurant business right now. A recession is coming but I think they will cut down on tech gadgets and clothes before they cut down on going out. The pandemic has made us realize how important it is to feel connected, to be part of a community and local bars and restaurants are the best places to do this and meet your friends. Places that cater to local communities, places that are not stuck up or snobby will be doing great », Andreas adds. He may have a point: if people go out, they will go to places they can trust or they can head to without having to travel too much.

We will see if Andreas — who augurs a big hospitality boom next year — is right. What he sees now ought to be reassuring, in spite of all the warnings in the preceding paragraphs: « You can see people are tired of social distancing and are ready to go out but they understand and follow the rules », he says. And clients who have come back are spending more — a trend which a few of the bars that have reopened over the last couple weeks in Spain and France have commented on: « They understand they have to buy an extra shot, an extra beer and tip more to keep bars and restaurant afloat. Regulars are dropping by a couple of times a week for a quick drink, a small plate. We’ve been supported by our community, especially in a monetary way ». There are things you don’t value as much as you should until they’re taken away from you. Bars and restaurants might be among them.

François Monti