Gastro Policy Talk with a twist – made possible by the creativity of restaurant businesses

18 October 2021
METRO Own Business Day 2021 | #LoveOwnBusiness

“Courage. Innovation. Confidence” – this was the title of this year’s Own Business Day policy event in Düsseldorf. For the third time in a row, METRO hosted an exchange between policymakers and independent entrepreneurs, especially from the restaurant industry.

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Courage. Innovation. Confidence. Why this triad?

In the year and a half of the pandemic, there has been much discussion about the challenges facing the restaurant industry – but rarely about the things that have propelled restaurant businesses forward during this time. Whether through the use of digitisation opportunities, the development of new business channels, additional offers or new forms of guest communication – restaurants, cafés and bars have demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit, created inspiration and broken new ground. It was precisely this driving force that we wanted to put at the centre of the Policy Talk.

How can we use this momentum to address pressing challenges facing the sector? How can restaurant businesses contribute their potential to shaping the way we live together? And what role should a close alliance between the hospitality sector and policymakers play in this?

This was the focus of the discussion with our guests Prof. Dr. Andreas Pinkwart (Minister for Economic Affairs, Innovation, Digitisation and Energy of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia), Marion Hörsken (Managing Director Chamber of Industry), Walid El Sheikh (owner of The Paradise Now! and other businesses), Nic Shanker (founder of Starkeepers), Katharina Bilinski and Katharina Krüll (co-owners of Flurklinik) and Peter Wienen (Chairman of IG Kö).

The fact that we chose The Paradise Now! at Düsseldorf’s Media Harbour as the location for the policy talk could not symbolise the event’s objective any better: The new gastronomic concept, planned during the crisis and recently launched, represents optimism and the creative potential of the industry: “I am thrilled by the innovative spirit, energy and motivation that I have encountered in the restaurant industry over the past few months,” Steffen Greubel, CEO of METRO AG, stated in his welcoming speech, adding that this also gave him strength and confidence for the future.

New ways of doing business with digitisation

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The last two years have shown how investments in digitisation have changed the hospitality industry: “We were too big to just wait and see. It took creative solutions to get through the lockdowns,“ said Nic Shanker. He offered free cocktail workshops via Instagram Live during the first lockdown, then developed this idea further, creating the “Moments” cocktail boxes for DIY mixing at home. Their restaurant Flurklinik also had to develop its digital approach further, said Katharina Bilinski: “We deliberately decided not to work with the big delivery services and launched our own online shop. This was completely new territory for us and also for our employees.” Even though the physical business is once again the focus of operations, they have not completely abandoned the online business. “Our customers have noticed that they can enjoy our meals in good quality at home. Nevertheless, our focus is on welcoming guests on site,” said Katharina Krüll.

Minister Pinkwart also sees great future potential in digitisation: “It’s not about replacing analogue services with digital solutions. It’s about how digitisation enriches us and helps us move forward.” Walid El-Sheikh uses digital tools to simplify processes, e.g. in reservations – at the same time, the experience of guests when visiting his restaurant is the top priority for the restaurateur. He sees progress in the courage to face the unknown: “Only by going one step further can we be the spearhead of an industry and give our guests something they can then use to create new elements in the areas they work in.”

Tackling the shortage of skilled workers

For all the progress in the restaurant business, there is one threatening step backwards: Restaurants have lost many employees during the crisis. This has massively increased the problem of staff shortages which is already severely affecting business. Time for good ideas and great solutions.

For The Paradise Now!, Walid El-Sheikh took a new approach to temp recruiting: “I have to reach out to young people where they are every day – on social media.” He puts emphasis on jobs in hospitality as a means of acquiring soft and hard skills for one’s professional future. Because beyond technical skills, the restaurant business teaches employees how to communicate and how to address people with passion. And he goes even further: “At Paradise Now! they can also learn how to create a corporate identity or what ambient lighting should look like. We want to appeal to a range of people with different career goals – we need to adapt to their needs.” Marion Hörsken was thrilled by this wealth of ideas: “We don’t talk enough about those who do things right.”

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However, to get more people interested in the hospitality trade, one thing is needed above all else: appreciation for the industry.

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The awareness of the restaurant business has increased with the crisis – but the appreciation has not. The panellists agreed that the behaviour of guests has not changed. While healthcare professions have been able to attract new staff in the context of increased social recognition during the pandemic, the situation is different in the hospitality sector. “Politicians too have overlooked a few things here,” Martin Behle, Operating Partner METRO AG, observed. “Unlike in many other countries, there is no destination marketing here that also includes the restaurant segment and thus sends signals of appreciation both internally and externally.” Germany regularly ranks second or third in the number of Michelin stars. “Hardly anyone knows that.” A clear call: A societal debate is needed that leads to an increased appreciation for the restaurant business, its employees and its products. Closely linked to this is the discussion about prices. Katharina Krüll emphasised: “A lunch for less than 7 euros, which is often the expectation of the guests, is not feasible for us as a neighbourhood restaurant” – after all, everything is freshly prepared and cooked on site.

Restaurants and cafés as drivers of diverse city centres

Strengthening the sector is also important because it plays a central role in how we live together. This is also acutely evident in the city centres, whose future viability is currently the subject of heated debate. “All forms of food and drink establishments are essential for city centres, from the old town pub to the café on the high street,” said Peter Wienen. People are coming into town less and less to shop. The gastronomic experience, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly important in attracting people to the city. Marion Hörsken agreed: “Integrated concepts are what’s important now. We cannot think separately in terms of retail, restaurants or mobility anymore.“ “Just like the Kö boulevard in Düsseldorf, city centres must create an event-like atmosphere because they are important cultural spaces,” said Minister Pinkwart.

However, in order to tap the potential of restaurant businesses for revitalised city centres, a lot needs to be done in cooperation with policymakers and administrators. A big problem, for example, are the “hurdles for negotiating tenancy agreements, which exclude many interested parties from the outset”, said Walid El Sheikh, assessing the problem of inner-city hospitality businesses. Red tape too was detrimental to the goal of better positioning restaurants and bars as magnets in the urban landscape: “Excessive regulations and controls by the health and safety authorities do a lot of damage to the restaurant sector,” said Peter Wienen. “Why aren’t the requirements being pared down to incentivise new businesses?” More leeway for experimentation is important to create space for solutions, the panellists agreed.

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So what does the way forward look like?

The restaurant industry has proven how adaptive it is. This has also increased the expectations on policymakers and administrators to tackle challenges in an equally flexible and goal-oriented manner. The heightened awareness of the industry must now be translated into a willingness to act. “Restaurant businesses provide the setting for special encounters, a sense of well-being and inspiration. It is these analogue moments that are hospitality’s greatest strength. No other industry creates this kind of space for togetherness,” Ivonne Bollow, Global Director Corporate Public Policy at METRO AG and moderator of the discussion panel, reiterated in her closing remarks. “That is precisely why we have to work on creating a close link between politics, society and gastronomy. It is the only way to lead the sector into a promising future and maintain its place in our communities.”

METRO Own Business Day
METRO Own Business Day
METRO Own Business Day