Text, photos and videos: Lucie Sýkorová
The Czech nation of beer-lovers celebrates. On Monday, May 25, pubs and restaurants reopened after more than two months, when they had to close in mid-March due to the coronavirus epidemic. However, despite the gloomy predictions from April, according to which the coronvirus pandemic could have destroyed one tenth to a quarter of gastronomic enterprises, only about 2.5% of them will probably remain closed.
This resulted from a survey carried out by Pilsner Urquell. The largest Czech brewery and owner of the Pils trademark obtained data from 80% of pubs to which it supplies its beer. This equals almost half of all gastronomic companies in the Czech Republic. “It is clear that pubs are in a difficult situation and many of them have serious financial problems. Most of those who originally wanted to hang the craft on a nail, however, decided to continue. Of our 20,000 partner enterprises, only about 500 will remain permanently closed, ”says Tomáš Mráz, Sales Director of Pilsner Urquell.
However, it is not yet certain how pubs and restaurants will eventually succeed. The initial estimates from the first days after the reopening say, according to the Czech Association of Breweries and Malthouses, that sales in gastronomic companies are currently at the level of 30 to 40% of normal values. Beer production in barrels and tanks fell by 70 percent in March and April, while bottle and can production rose 15 percent, the association announced.
Lockdown came over the night
It’s Thursday, March 12, 2:00 pm. From this moment on, a state of emergency applies in the Czech Republic. It will eventually last 66 days and will thus become the longest in the history of the Czech Republic. To this date, more than 125,000 people got reportedly infected with the Coronavirus worldwide and 4,600 have succumbed. In the Czech Republic, 96 infected people are reported, no deaths. Nevertheless, government measures have been very strict from the beginning. As of Friday, March 13, all events with the participation of more than 30 people are prohibited, entry to sports grounds, wellness facilities and libraries is no longer allowed. Pubs and restaurants must remain closed between 8 pm and 6 am. Entry into the Czech Republic is also restricted for foreigners and Czech citizens are subject to an immediate ban on entering high-risk countries.
Further restrictions were agreed by the government right on the next day late evening. With effect from Saturday, March 13, from 6 am, most of the shops except food, pharmacies, drugstores and gas stations must remain closed. And the total closure affects this time also restaurants, bars and canteens. Except for those who have a „service window“ or sell food or drinks to go. As of March 14, when these measures come into force, there have been 150 people known to be infected with the Coronavirus in the Czech Republic. Owners of restaurants, bars and cafes are recovering from an unexpectedly rapid forced closure. Some react flexibly and open “beer-windows” almost immediately – they set tables in front of the entrance and offer drinks and food to go. Guests, even the regular ones, are rather hesitant at first, but gradually many of them dare and go to the streets to support their favorite enterprises. Of course with face-masks on, from March 19 it is forbidden to leave home and move in public without a covered mouth and nose.
For the next ten weeks, the beer-window will be the only possible contact with popular enterprises, where many used to spend hours on a regular basis. “Pubs are an important part of national culture for most Czechs. A few months ago, it probably would not have occurred to anyone that such a common thing as it is for us to go for one (beer) would not be possible,“ says Ladislav Vaindl, a beer expert and journalist from Pilsen.
“I worked from home at the time of the quarantine, and didn’t get out much. Of course, I missed the beer, and every time I went shopping, I took a few bottles. A big distraction for me was the visiting of the beer-windows that were open in Pilsen. I went to see them about four times.”
Save the beer, save the pub
It was the “beer-windows”, along with the delivery of food and drinks, that ultimately saved many pubs and restaurants. “It is obvious that pub´s are really important for beer-lovers, because in difficult times, many of them decided to support their pubs with the greatest possible consumption,” says Ladislav Vaindl. Thanks to an initiative called Save the Pub, customers could also help to survive selected pubs or restaurants. The application was launched at the beginning of April by the Czech Association of Breweries and Malthouses, and around 2,500 companies took part in it. Through the app, customers bought vouchers in their favorite restaurants, which they can redeem now after re-opening.
Already at the end of March, a campaign called Save the Beer was launched, which was focused on saving mini-breweries. It was set up by the executive of the Kytín brewery, Michal Pomahač. It worked simply – the customer looked at an interactive map which mini-breweries in his region offer beer, ordered and picked it up, or used the delivery option. More than 320 mini-breweries signed up for the application and customers bought beers through it for about 200 million czech crowns (ca. 7.4 million Euro) . They saved millions of beers that would otherwise end up in the canal due to the elapsed consumption time, and thus the mini-breweries themselves.
In this respect, mini-breweries were more fortunate than the big ones. They are gradually pouring hundreds of thousands of hectoliters of this popular drink into the sewer in these days, because there was no way to sell it. These are mainly unfiltered and unpasteurized draft beers. Several tens of thousands of hectoliters will also be poured out by the world-famous Pilsner Urquell, which also exchanged the used beer for a fresh one free of charge for its contracted pubs.
The club of small breweries met with regular guests online
There are already more than 450 mini-breweries in the Czech Republic, which are often not afraid to experiment with unusual products. And in recent years, their products have enjoyed great popularity also in Pilsen, the world’s cradle of the classic light lager. One of the proofs is the Club of Small Breweries, which has been operating since ten years directly opposite the giant area of Pilsner Urquell. “When we started ten years ago, there were 50 mini-breweries in the Czech Republic. Now there are almost ten times more,” says the owner of the company Petr Strnad. His club with a capacity of about a hundred people, including a beer-garden, alternates beers from small breweries at eight beer taps. In addition, there are 60-100 types of bottled beers in offer, about half of it from foreign producers. The club also regularly offers beers from Bavarian breweries from the borderland, especially from Zwiesel or Regen.
The Club of Small Breweries survived the corona-crisis without big losses. “We did not pour any beer, our regular guests kept us. It was more demanding for us than usually, we had to be available for shopping through the window even in times when we are not normally open, and we also offered delivery. We had to meet the customers,” admits Petr Strnad. And loyal customers returned the effort. “One of the regular guests was so afraid of that we´re going bankrupt, that he bought a keg of beer in a mini-brewery in Sušice and brought it to us by train as a gift,” smiles the owner of the club.
He met his regular guests several times during the ten weeks, at least virtually, Petr Strnad says and smiles.
We decided to organize several meetings online. I think it was quite a success, we always had 60-80 people connected and we talked for two to two and a half hours.
Beer delivery in the plague doctor’s mask
The owners of other pubs also agree that loyal customers have saved their pubs. “I have to say that our customers are great, they supported us, helped us and didn’t let us fall,” praises the owner of the Pivotečka beer bar, Milan Srvátka. “Unfortunately, I’m a little disappointed that the state has come up with basically nothing but bans,” he notes. His beer-bar was saved by sale through a window during the coronation crisis, an agreement with the landlord of the premises where Pivotečka is based, as well as a by new e-shop. That will remain in operation for customers even after the crisis.
Like Srvátka, many entrepreneurs in gastronomy complain about the absence of help from the state. The Ministry of Industry first offered interest-free loans to companies as an aid. However, it did not reach most applicants, the receipt of applications in the first round was stopped after only a few hours. In addition, gastronomy was assessed as a risk area in this program, so entrepreneurs in this field were rejected. According to representatives of banks, some of them could reach for loans provided in the next round of this program, which should be launched in the coming days. However, these will already be loans with interest rates, although lower ones.
Why the antivirus programme does not help small bars
Another type of state aid in the Czech Republic is the Antivirus program. Within it, entrepreneurs can apply for a so-called kurzarbeit, specifically for compensation of up to 80% of the super-gross wage per employer, if this amount does not exceed 39,000 crowns (approximately 1400 EUR). However, this assistance can only be requested for employees who have an employment contract. In small bars, pubs and cafes, however, the employment relationship is usually resolved in the form of an agreement.
One-time contribution for trade-licence businesses
Those who do business only on a trade license could receive a one-time contribution of 25,000 crowns (approx. 920 EUR) from the state. But the business must be their main job. Only on May 27 the Chamber of Deputies approved support for partners of small limited liability companies, which have a maximum of two partners. The state has not supported them in any way so far. The support will be CZK 500 per day and covers the period from March 12 to June 8. Applicants can thus receive a total of 44,500 crowns (approx. 1,600 EUR).
Promises vs. reality
Many economists are also critical about the state’s approach to helping entrepreneurs. “An infinitely sad story, promises versus reality: as of May 28, 11 weeks after the economy, households and companies were shut down, they received less than 36 billion crowns, almost 40 billion together with the money from the EU. Guarantees provided for about 11 billion. In summary, we are only at 13% of the promised direct aid,” says economist Helena Horská on Twitter.
Nekonečně smutný příběh Sliby vs.realita: k 28.5.,po 11 týdnech od vyplnutí ekonomiky,domácnosti a firmy dostaly vyplaceno necelých 36 miliard Kč, s penězi z EU skoro 40 miliard. Garance poskytnuty za zhruba 11 miliard. Suma sumárum jsme jen na 13% slíbené přímé pomoci. @koronerv pic.twitter.com/4ny3iZg5f2
— Helena Horská (@HelenaHorska) May 28, 2020
The owner of the beer-retro-café Francis Vojtěch Vrobel came up with the original idea during the corona-crisis. He began distributing beer to customers dressed as a plague doctor. “My friend makes leather products, so he made a thematic mask of a plague doctor for me. Some customers understood, some others had somewhat contradictory reactions to it. However, at least we enjoyed it,” he smiles. With this gesture (though unknowingly) he also referred to the historical connection between Pilsen and Italy – his pub is located in a building right next to Pilsen City Hall, which was built at the end of the 16th century by Italian builders in the Italian Renaissance Style. Today it is even called the most beautiful Renaissance town hall in Bohemia.
Even Vojtěch Vrobel did not receive any support from the state. Like the others, his business survived thanks to an agreement with the owner of the building and customers support. “But we didn’t think about closing the pub,” he says firmly. “Now we are catching up with a slightly different thing – the small breweries also did not know how the situation would develop, and when we ran out of beer last week, I was not able to get a single keg of beer anywhere close to Pilsen. So I took a car and toured the breweries around the country to buy barrels of beer to have something to shoot,” he says and smiles.