Nobelhart’s Billy Wagner charts the (surprising) challenges of reopening after lockdown

Billy Wagner - 20/05/2020

Restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig in Berlin, Germany, ranked No.57 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list, reopened last week after a two-month lockdown. In the first of an exclusive two-parter, its charismatic host and owner Billy Wagner describes the new reality of returning to service

Berlin is open again. And so is Nobelhart & Schmutzig. People are back on the streets and back in our seats.

It all happened rather more swiftly than we had anticipated, too. For weeks, there had been no official word on when we would be able to serve guests in-house again. Within days of the forced closure in mid-March, we got our takeout and delivery operation underway. Within weeks, we’d expanded it into an online shop of artisanal foods, beverages and accessories. There was a lot of trial and error along the way, of course, but we managed to settle into the new ‘Covid normal’ – accepting that we didn’t know what was going to happen, or when, and  determined to make the best of it all the same.

Nobelhart's delivery offering

And then, on 6th May, the Berlin Senate announced that restaurants were allowed to open again… from the 15th. A rather short notice period. Still, we were elated – after all, serving guests is what we love to do, and working behind closed doors is just not the same. This set the upbeat tone for our test dinner night ahead of the opening. After nine weeks, all of us were looking forward to that first service. And we knew our guests were excited, too. 

So with all of us together at one table, finally winding down after nine days of sometimes frantic preparation, I took the opportunity to ask the team what they felt were the major challenges in reopening. We agreed that over the previous few days we had managed to iron out most of the obvious issues around continuing our online shop and deliveries alongside the newly resumed restaurant service. Yes, things would be different: we would be working in two shifts, with fewer staff in the evening. The restaurant would be open, but strangely empty with only half the number of guests. Sure, none of us were exactly thrilled about having to wear masks all evening, but – being stoically German – we’re not in the habit of complaining about things that aren’t up for debate.

For our manager Juliane, figuring out the seating plans in accordance with distance regulations had felt a little like playing Tetris, but she’s a pro and worked it out. We figured that small things would come up here and there. Above all, we worried that having to close by 10pm [under the city’s new guidelines] would leave guests (and us!) feeling a little rushed. Still, we were confident. 

Nobelhart & Schmutzig’s counter is re-set to allow for social distancing

Looking back now, after two nights of serving guests, it turns out that the real challenge wasn’t one we had anticipated at all. Implementing new hygiene protocols and figuring out the pace of service – that’s not really a problem when you’ve got decades of experience under your belt. The really tricky issue, I found, was that elusive but all-the-more important element of hospitality: interacting with guests. 

I’ve already mentioned how I love hosting people at the restaurant, and I think that’s true for many in our profession. Yes, our head chef Micha can be adorably grumpy, but I – and many in our team – thrive on the energy, the community, the conversations. That is why Nobelhart has a long counter rather than separate tables. To us, it’s really about coming together to share an experience, and that is the spirit we bring to our service. 


The restaurant's charismatic owner, Billy Wagner

Which is why I was so surprised to find myself in a few odd situations
over the course of our first few nights back. As we got ready to wrap things up for 10pm, a party of guests asked us to ignore the curfew. (Normally, we don’t have one in Berlin.) When we politely asked them to understand that we wouldn’t be able to serve any more drinks, they tried to argue. Under normal circumstances, I’m not the kind of person to call it an early night; I’m always happy to crack open another bottle, or several.

But now? Of course, I am trying to do what I can to keep the restaurant open, to keep people safe, and to give the authorities no reason to force us to close again. So, for the first time in my life, I’m finding myself playing the role of a stickler for rules and regulations.

I still hadn’t worked out how I felt about that when another odd thing happened during one of the following nights. As he was getting ready to leave, a guest pulled me into a hug, even as I tried to shirk away. Again, pre-Covid that would probably have been fine with me. Now it made me very uncomfortable.

We had been sure to communicate the safety and hygiene measures at the restaurant; we did our best to keep a reasonable distance during all interactions. I don’t consider myself to be overly alarmist or panicked about coronavirus. But for someone to decide unilaterally that a hug was in order? That felt like a real transgression to me. Again, I was not sure how to respond in the moment. So I went along with it.

Later, I was upset not just that the guest had hugged me, but that I hadn’t stood my ground. I’m responsible for the safety of all of my team and guests – I know that I need to err on the side of caution. We could easily face repercussions if anyone reported that we were (at least seemingly) in the habit of ignoring distancing rules.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t say anything. Perhaps, on some subconscious level, I felt that I owed the guest? After all, he had just spent a lot of money. In retrospect, I also wonder how the guest would have responded had I refused the hug, since he had been so pushy about it. Would he have told me to chill out and get over it? Would he, in turn, have been upset? 

Nobelhart & Schmutzig head chef Micha Schäfer 

That was another first for me, in these times of many firsts. I found myself in a situation every woman knows only too well: I went along with something that made me deeply uncomfortable, because I wasn’t sure whether I was somehow indebted to him; and because I was worried that my reasons for not wanting proximity would either not be listened to or dismissed outright. I would once again be the unrelaxed stickler, the spoilsport. Something I am not and never wanted to be. 

And thus, a simple interaction between owner and guest has turned into an issue of consent. With Covid as with sex, you should never assume consent. You need to ask, communicate. And respond with empathy if other people’s boundaries are different from your own.

I think that, for me, is the main challenge of reopening with Covid in the picture. The details of running a restaurant and delivery service with new hygiene measures? We’re more than able to work it out. But if we want to stay open, we need our guests to step up, too. Not just by supporting us through their custom, but by playing their part in helping us do what we need to do in order to continue serving them. We need guests not to ask us to waive the rules, we need them to respect our boundaries, and we need them to ask questions if there are any uncertainties. 

Still, I am glad these situations came up, because they inspired me and the team to reflect on such issues. Dealing with coronavirus is a process of learning, for all of us, and I feel it is best faced with an open mind. Yes, there might be inconvenience and discomfort, but perhaps we will come out of this with a greater sensitivity towards our needs and those of others – and a greater willingness and ability to communicate with each other.

After all, if there is one lesson from the pandemic, let it be this: we are all in it together.

Stay tuned to the 50 Best Recovery Hub for part two of Wagner's experiences since reopening his restaurant which will be published in early June. See the restaurant's website to make a reservation.

Header image courtesy of Caroline Prange
Story inset images courtesy of NHS and Yoni Nimrod