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Challenges in F&B: A talk with Jedi from restaurant Lorbeer

How did you come to work in the F&B industry?

I worked as a dishwasher part-time when in high school and in university, so that was my first foray into the F&B industry. Then, when a chef in the restaurant fell ill, I jumped in to replace him. But the chef never showed up again, and I was suddenly the head chef, which was where I remained. However, I never completed a conventional training course to become a chef. I had actually begun studying physics, and became a chef entirely by chance and through merit. The second station in my career was the Café Nord in Pankow, Berlin. I worked as a chef there. Originally, the establishment was more of a café or bar. But the kitchen kept growing because customers really liked the food there. Somewhere along the line, a partner wanted to leave the business and was searching for someone to take over his shares. I decided that someone would be me. It was my first business. At the same time, my two sons were born, one shortly after the other. I then asked myself if I wanted to continue working in the F&B industry now that I had two children. Hence, I sold my shares in Café Nord and began working as a salaried employee again. I have now run the Lorbeer for slightly more than a year. When it was still called the Lorberth, I worked here as a chef.

What is the greatest challenge you see for the F&B industry?

The customer is not prepared to pay for quality. You have to find the right balance between quality and continuity. If on one occasion, you happen to have more time and put in more of an effort in arranging the plate, but then on another, you simply slap the food on the plate in a hurry, the customer will definitely be unhappy. The greatest challenge is managing inventory. When I’m expecting 100 persons, I need to buy food and supplies for at least 500 — after all, I can’t predict what those 100 persons will order from the menu. Hence, it is easier if you keep the menu small, and therefore the risk low as well.

Which dishes are ordered the most?

[While we’re talking, a delivery of 3 kilos of mozzarella balls directly from a local manufacturer arrives]

This right here is my favorite dish. Buffalo mozzarella salad. The mozzarella comes from this very region (Kremm). I can rely on its quality. In general, mid-range and high-priced dishes are ordered less often than smaller dishes at low prices. You need to always carefully calculate how much of a profit you can make with which dishes. Unfortunately, sometimes you need to question your ideals as well. As long as customers are not prepared to pay for quality, it is also difficult for us restaurants to deliver good quality. Luckily for us, things are working out really well here.

What do you do in your free time?

Working in F&B is hard work. I do weight training to maintain a healthy balance. But I have also been looking forward to this interview, because I have once again deliberately taken the time to speak about my situation. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on myself and to see if I’m on the right path.

What results in the most work for you?

Legislators really make life difficult for us. The number of laws out there and the logistical demands are so high that particularly new and inexperienced people in the F&B industry are often completely overwhelmed. In fact, most of my time is lost on having to check every single little detail. There is the trade and regulatory office, the industrial inspectorate, the food control administration, the building authorities, the health authorities, the GEMA, hygiene regulations and so on. For example, if the regulations for the distances between urinals are changed, we need to dismantle them. (laughs) Then, a couple of months later, they are changed again. That costs us a great deal of money each and every time. Let me tell you a story about the German Principles of Data Access and Verifiability of Digital Documents (GDPdU for short). Previously, it was necessary for the auditor to come by to view documents. The Federal Ministry of Finance has now simplified the means of access. This means that each restaurant is required to acquire a new cash register which has such a GDPdU interface. Hence, I bought a new cash register without knowing that a simple update would have sufficed. Once again, a costly acquisition that I didn’t actually need. The directives and laws are enacted without anyone thinking about the consequences they have, in particular for small and medium-sized restaurants.

Further complicating the situation is that they do not distinguish between restaurant types; e.g. if you have a restaurant or a canteen. However, in actual fact, this makes a huge difference. Another example: In a fully equipped kitchen, I need a grease separator. Previously, I had it cleaned when it was necessary. Now, this is regulated by law. Hence, I need to pay every time, whether it is dirty or not. This makes sense for a canteen that sells French fries by the kilo, but not for us!

New restaurants are practically being smothered by statutory regulations.

But I have a tip for everyone who wishes to start their own restaurant: I am a great fan of the DEHOGA — the German Association of Hotels and Restaurants, which provides you with access to a great deal of important information. It may cost a fee, but it’s totally worth it!

Do you think being in F&B is a calling?

There are a lot of people who join the F&B industry because they think it’s a quick way to make a lot of money. But that’s not the right mindset to have. That might work if you’re in fast food or have a snack bar, where the quality of the food is secondary. But with the Lorbeer, my aim was to offer my customers high-quality ingredients, and even though we’re not an award-winning restaurant, it is extremely difficult to make a substantial profit. Despite that, this is now my life. I have been in this industry for 23 years, and I no longer ask myself if this is what I want to be doing. I just had to send my family on vacation without me because other employees were on vacation. In the F&B industry, you need to be resilient in order to be able to withstand the pressure. You constantly meet people who have gone through a lot in life and had problems.

The F&B industry is the catch-all for people who have failed.

Of course, it is that too, but it gives these people a second chance. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it is precisely these people who really make it in the industry. You do not need a business degree to do well in this industry. But of course it can be useful. I learned everything myself. Failure and experience are the best teachers. I have also seen restaurants go belly up. The restaurant business has its highs and lows. Sometimes it’s not working out at all, but then you have to find out what the reason for that is and be flexible.

If you weren’t working in a restaurant, what would you be doing?

I have often thought about whether I should go back to university. But I have heard from relatives that even after you get a degree, it is hard to find a job when you’re 40 or older. I did study physics, but because I didn’t take the exams, I’m barred from this course of studies for life. But I have to admit that I’ve stopped thinking about what my dreams are.

What do you look forward to each day at work?

The great thing about being in F&B is that you see results quickly. When you arrange a dish, you feel happy about having created something. And when you also get positive feedback from customers, it motivates you to keep at it. You just have to make sure you offer a constant level of quality so that customers keep coming back.

What makes you good at what you do?

In the F&B industry, you need to be a forward thinker, and already be thinking of tomorrow today. Trends come and go really quickly. If you’re not prepared, it can mean the end of your restaurant before you realize it. An increasing number of people are vegans or allergic to certain types of food; that’s something you have to get used to and find a solution for. Hence, we prepare our sauces so that they are acceptable for vegans and also suitable for people who are lactose intolerant.

A good restaurant manager caters to his customers’ needs and wants. Sometimes I receive orders that really stump me. Despite that, I of course do my best to fulfill their wishes.

What would you serve if someone asked for a risotto without rice? (laughs)

In the evenings, I’m in the kitchen — I don’t really know what’s going on outside at that time. The service staff is responsible for forwarding requests and complaints to me. I need to be able to rely on them. And then it’s my turn to be on the front line for once (laughs).

You also need to be able to analyze things. Due to psychological reasons, waiters are never criticized — customers don’t want to tell people to their face that their service was bad. Instead, what frequently happens is that they find another reason to explain why their visit to the restaurant was not up to their expectations. That reason is the food. Hence, I always look carefully at the plates when they come back to the kitchen. If the customers liked it, the plates are always empty. If they say they liked it, but the plate comes back half full, then I know that something has happened, but I don’t know what.

What helps reduce your workload each day?

For me it’s always best if I have to coordinate as little as possible. I am the one who takes care of the finances and the legal aspects. When I’m standing in the kitchen, I need to be well-organized — that’s quintessential for a chef. It’s something you can only learn through experience.

For the dining area, we use the resmio reservation system. It helps us keep an eye on the number of customers and accept reservations. I also take care of online marketing and regularly send my lunch menu to my customers. I’m always happy when my customers return. Approximately 10% of customers who receive the newsletter also decide to take us up on our offers.