It is well known at this point that Hungary’s catering businesses have been struggling ever since dining in was forbidden three months ago in accordance with lockdown restrictions. Since then, companies have laid off many employees and shifted to a focus on delivery and take-out. Some have simply gone out of business after the depletion of their reserves. Many business owners and employees are sharing their struggles with the media, while opposition politicians are challenging the government for not doing enough to help them.
Food ordering and delivery have become increasingly popular over the past years. Platforms which run on this service have been thriving during the coronavirus pandemic, but restaurants which make their income on customers who dine in have been struggling.
For the bars and nightclubs which make up some of the cornerstones of Budapest’s legendary nightlife, it is unlikely that providing shots for takeout, as one pub owner in Monor put it, will prove in any way successful.
The Transition to Delivery and Takeout Proves Unsustainable
The options available for catering businesses which have relied on customers to dine-in include closing temporarily, orienting themselves to a focus on providing take-out, having their own delivery service, or joining an online delivery platform.
The most notable among such platforms in Hungary include NetPincér, Wolt, and Bolt Food, known for their many delivery people biking around Budapest wearing large, square backpacks. These companies have continued to thrive under the current lockdown situation, which explains why every other biker seen on the capital’s streets is delivering food.
For cafés, pubs, and restaurants which make their income off of customers dining in, the options are not promising. If they close, they are potentially doomed since the length of the current lockdown is unknown. If they attempt to shift to a delivery or take-out focus, they are competing with large restaurant chains such as McDonalds and KFC which thrive off such services.
While there were talks of a mass reopening for February first, the harsh potential punishments for breaking pandemic restrictions deterred Hungarian restaurants. It is also possible that many are hopeful that they will soon be able to reopen, legally.
Famous Hungarian Chef Shares His Insight
Lajos Bíró, a famous Hungarian master chef with multiple restaurants, discussed the struggle and potential reopening of catering businesses in a recent interview with Index. Bíró said that they are preparing for a summer reopening, but even that is only likely to happen in the countryside.
Bíró believes the issue of allowing customers to dine-in could easily be solved with the use of plexiglass, maintaining distances between tables, and constant disinfection. He argues that it would be much safer than Pest’s public transport, office building buffets, shopping malls, or the long lines at ski lifts.
Despite his opinions, the chef has been following the restrictions set in place, and is not protesting because the risks are too grave.
When asked whether he receives aid for complying with the law, Bíró said that government support needs to speed up, not through aid, but through compensation. Restaurants, according to him, should receive 50 percent of their average net income from 2019, as long as they don’t fire their employees.
The situation of the many people who were laid off is a different story. Many have had to seek work in completely different fields, working side jobs off the record.
Former Workers of Hungary’s Catering Businesses Struggle to Get By
During the two days of catering protests at Heroes’ Square, Azonnali questioned many of the former catering employees who were demonstrating, about their motivations for getting involved.
One of them, a former Sommelier, said that he has been travelling down to Jászberény with his colleagues and his boss to work illegally at the local masonry brigade. He says the masons have helped him and his colleagues more than the government has.
Ákos Gyömbér, a shareholder of the Freshland restaurant franchise, told Telex that although he understands the tension in the catering industry over pandemic restrictions, he does not in any way support the unlawful reopening of stores in protest of the government.
Still, he has called on the government to legislate the lawful reopening of such businesses by spray painting his boarded-up restaurant, which Árkád shopping mall closed after Gyömbér could not pay debts brought on by the pandemic. His message wrote “We wish to live!! Let us work!!!! This is the workplace of 5 people!”
Government Enacts Change, Opposition Says It’s Not Enough
According to Magyar Nemzet, the government will soon enact legislation to support catering businesses, gyms, and hotels, by paying wage subsidies at the beginning of the month, instead of at the end. This way the more than 100 thousand employees benefitting from wage subsidies receive their money sooner.
Péter Niedermüller, mayor of Budapest’s VII. District and member of social-liberal Democratic Coalition party said that offering wage subsidies is not enough for people who have lost their work, reports ATV.
The opposition politician asserts that about 40 percent of catering businesses in the “party district” have surely been ruined all ready, and 20-30 percent are on the verge of going under.
Niedermüller says the government must provide much more substantial aid in order ensure that these companies do not go out of businesses. He also suggests the government to at least allow businesses with outdoor areas to open, ensuring that their customers maintain social distancing.
The government’s decision to provide aid to the service sector shows that it recognizes the issue, which seems to be much more serious than many may have thought. It is likely that many restaurants chose not to reopen during the February first protests because they are counting on the government to help them.
Featured photo illustration by Gábor Kiss/MTI