Transparency, chef therapy and dinners in sex shops: positive lockdown learnings from Nobelhart’s Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner - 15/07/2020

Almost two months ago, Nobelhart & Schmutzig owner Billy Wagner charted the reopening of his acclaimed Berlin restaurant on the 50 Best site. In this sequel, he reflects on the personal lessons and professional opportunities wrought by Covid-19

It’s been four months since Covid closures hit Berlin. After two months in lockdown, we were able to open again to a smaller number of guests in May. All in all, I feel that we at Nobelhart & Schmutzig have coped quite well. But I cannot say for sure that this is a success story: we won’t know until the end of the year, when the numbers are in.

One thing I do know is that we have seized this opportunity – uncomfortable as it was at first – to branch out in all kinds of ways that I find rewarding and exciting. Perhaps we had become a little complacent, busy as we were, and in a way, it was good to shake things up a little. Here are the lessons I have taken from this unusual period…

Communicate honestly and transparently
When Covid began to take effect, I wasn’t able to predict the future any more than anybody else. But at the very least, I figured that I could be honest and transparent with both our staff and customers.

The Nobelhart & Schmutzig team ready for a socially distanced service

That meant having some difficult conversations. When you’re responsible for 12 people, it’s hard to have to sit them down and say: “Look, I have no idea what’s going to happen either.” I did not want to make any promises I could not keep, but I was clear with them about what I did and did not know. I let them know about the general situation of the business, financially and otherwise, and that I was committed to protecting their jobs. And that if anything changed for the worse, I would let them know as soon as I knew.

In the same way, I’ve found it hugely important to keep in close touch with our customers through the different stages of the pandemic – even if that, too, has involved admitting to uncertainty. We’ve had good feedback on this approach. For example, our Black Out Dinner was meant to take place in a club on 27th March. Obviously, we were forced to cancel our plans. Still, most people let us hang on to the money they had already paid for tickets, even though we offered to refund them in full. I suspect their trust in us is thanks to the fact that we’ve been honest – and that we’ve checked in a few times to thank them for their trust and let them know that we haven’t forgotten.

Get things out there first; refine second
Within days of the restaurant’s closure in March, we had a delivery service up and running. Within weeks, we had expanded that into a selection of artisanal foods, accessories and anything else deliciously Nobelhart-y.

At first, we sent the menu out with our newsletter, which got longer and longer every week as we added more products. We also asked people to phone in their orders. It wasn’t exactly a marvel in terms of user experience – no pretty online shop, no automated payments, just one very long document which eventually morphed into a 21-page beast. Still, we tried to do the best we could – even if it all seems fairly haphazard in retrospect and we had to make a lot of adjustments along the way.

After a couple of weeks doing deliveries, we realised we needed to recalculate. The price tag we’d initially put on our take-home supper didn’t nearly cover costs, so we had to hike it up by almost 70%. Sure, we could have tried to sell larger quantities of a basic option at a lower price, but for us it worked better to sell smaller quantities of a more high-value offer. Again, we decided to be open with our customers about why our supper was now quite a bit more expensive: because this was an unprecedented situation and we’d had no way of knowing in advance how the offer would be received, how these changes would affect our deals with suppliers, and what new overhead costs we would incur with a delivery service. People were understanding and supportive – they got it. After all, Covid was new to all of us. 

The restaurant's online store, which remains a work in progress

In June, our deliveries and selection of homemade products finally matured into an online shop with all the techy conveniences you’d expect – even though the restaurant opened back up in May. As of two weeks ago, we’ve been shipping to anywhere in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This is a long way from the shop’s humble beginnings back in March. But if we hadn’t started it then, we wouldn’t have had it ready now as an additional income stream.

Seize new opportunities
If there is one good thing that has come out of Covid, it’s that it has opened both our eyes and schedules to opportunities that simply weren’t there before. I had long toyed with the idea of doing collaborations with art collectives or taking Nobelhart cuisine to interesting places in and around Berlin. Sure, we had events outside the restaurant occasionally, but we never set up a proper dinner series. It just seemed too hard to pull off with everyone (ourselves included) being completely booked up for at least eight months.

With the pandemic in the picture, all of us entered a period of relative downtime. People are free – potential collaborators as much as locals who are staying in the city this summer – and so are the places that still cannot host larger-scale events. And everyone has been looking for new ways to make up for lost income. With this in mind, we launched our brand new Überall dinner series, which takes Nobelhart to galleries, churches, into clubs, factories, artist studios and sex shops. It’s a lot of work, but I have found it an incredibly rewarding experience, not least because of the community spirit it has fostered. Plus, doing collaborations of this sort puts money into the pockets of a multitude of people, from event technicians to DJs and flower shop owners.

N&S's dinner series Überall has taken place in all manner of venues across Berlin

Trust your team and be open to new ways of working

Doing deliveries, setting up an online shop, organising our new dinner series, all while having the restaurant open again, even if only to 25 guests per night… it has been quite a ride. I could only have done this by having a fantastic ream to rely on. We have also had to learn to be more flexible. Pre-coronavirus, we only had evening services and twice the number of guests we are legally allowed to serve today. That gave every day a clear structure and required all members of staff to be at the restaurant for set times. Now, a lot of the tasks involved in planning events and running the online shop don’t require me and/or parts of my team to be physically present at the restaurants for the entire afternoon and evening. (Or at all, on some days). This has been a welcome change especially for those among us who have childcare responsibilities. In truth, it is time the hospitality industry explored new options and dropped its hard-earned reputation as being famously tough on people’s private lives.

Keep working on yourself
This is a good idea in general, but even more so when you are a business owner or leader and your decisions directly affect people’s lives. Some time ago, Nobelhart’s head chef Micha Schäfer and I had started going to what we affectionately call ‘couple’s therapy’, because – as my psychologist wife is fond of saying – it is best to confront problems before they arise. We let it slip for a couple of months during the lockdown, but we’ve since picked it up again and I’m all the more aware of its importance. Especially in situations of change and uncertainty, it is vital you keep an eye on your values and goals, your needs and anxieties, your communication and leadership styles. Friends are good for that, but professionals are even better.

Head chef Micha Schäfer and owner Billy Wagner have been undertaking 'couple's therapy'

Personally, all the projects we’ve launched during Covid and all the different stages we have gone through have forced me to shake up a status quo with which I was no longer that content. Previously, I was always present during evening services. Now, I am having to learn to let that go, to put that responsibility into my team’s capable hands, so as to be able to focus on new opportunities to make the best out of a difficult situation. Again, we don’t yet know what the numbers are going to look like, but I am confident that some of the changes and novel developments will stand us in good stead for the future – even if only by virtue of showing that we are able to adapt to change and uncertainty.

Visit the Restaurant Recovery Hub and the Bar Recovery Hub to explore useful resources and read the stories of chefs and bartenders around the world. Follow 50 Best on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to discover positive initiatives by the worldwide hospitality industry.  

Team image courtesy of Caroline Prange