‘We invented work’: German bars tell of struggle to keep busy during lockdown

From distilling alcohol for pharmacies to printing takeaway bags and delivering order-in cocktails, Germany's food and beverage sector has been forced to get creative to keep their companies going through coronavirus shutdowns.

'We invented work': German bars tell of struggle to keep busy during lockdown
Bastian Heuser of teh Stalk Club. Photo: DPA

Three businesses tell AFP about their battle to survive:

Distilling for pharmacies

Bastian Heuser and his partners have been learning on the job since they stumbled into the whiskey business without any experience in the trade.

But since March, the three Berliners have been forced to further improvise as their distillery was forced shut during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had to react very quickly because we had invested a lot over the past three and a half years, and didn't have a big cash reserve,” said Heuser, co-founder and marketing manager at the Stork Club.

As factories and shops were ordered closed in March to curb transmissions of Covid-19, the distillery lost all of its sales.

But the pandemic offered an opportunity: with demand soaring for hand sanitisers, pharmacies in the area contacted the Stork Club to distil its alcohol to help cover regional shortages.

The company also sold some whiskey barrels to make ends meet, Heuser said.

They also moved their bar from a streetside shop into a courtyard — a timely investment, as the region benefited from a marked increase in domestic tourism after restrictions eased.

Guided tours, tastings and even weddings kept the distillery busy all summer. Heuser said the Stork Club “had up to 50 percent more turnover than in the preceding year, which more or less undid the springtime losses”.

Although income has once again plunged since in-house dining was banned in the latest round of shutdowns that began in November, Heuser said the distillery can weather the storm.

“With the new vaccine … I hope that by May, June a certain normalcy will return to our business,” Heuser said.

'Rain checks', cocktails to go

Katja Hiendlmayer, co-owner of cocktail bar Buerkner Eck, admitted that she would have “thought about doing something else” if she had known in March that her business would have to stay shut for much of the year.

“We could have acted. Right now we're only reacting,” she said.

Along with her partner Olaf Matthey, a barman by profession, Hiendlmayer opened the bar in Berlin in October 2017.

During Germany's spring shutdown Buerkner Eck made “at most 30 percent” of the turnover from the same period in 2019, she said.

“Many bars aren't doing anything,” she said, explaining that a November government aid programme that reimburses up to 75 percent of a bar's turnover from the previous year meant some preferred to just stay shut.

Nevertheless, she said, “we'd rather work for little than do nothing,” adding: “We want to keep our people employed.”

To keep employees busy, they came up with the idea of printing takeout bags.

“We invented work,” said Hiendlmayer.

That idea followed their first response to the spring restrictions: “rain check” vouchers they designed and printed in the bar and sold online. Some clients chose not to redeem their vouchers, “seeing it as a small donation,” Hiendlmayer said.

Five days after the start of the curbs in March, Buerkner Eck's webshop was ready for delivery orders. The barmen cycle to neighbourhoods in a five-kilometre (three-mile) radius of the bar to deliver their freshly bottled cocktails.

As the restrictions lifted late spring, demand for delivery and takeaway waned and customers returned. But as temperatures dropped again, clients were pushed indoors, with only half of the seating area available due to distancing requirements.

The couple estimates the bar was filled to about a third of its normal capacity during the autumn — from 100 to 35 people.

Buerkner Eck lost most of its remaining on-site customers after October 10, when an 11 pm ban on alcohol sales took effect in Berlin.

Although takeaway and delivery orders have now risen since the curbs were reimposed, Matthey said the demand does not compare to the first round of restrictions: “People are being more careful with their money.”

Takeaway kits, art exhibition

Long tables designed for communal eating used to be the main concept at Berlin-based restaurant La Cantine d'Augusta, but the pandemic has forced its transformation into a cheese and meat counter selling delicacies imported from France to take away.

With the restaurant now empty, it has also turned its walls into an exhibition space for one of its employees, Jean-Baptiste Monnin.

Before the coronavirus, La Cantine d'Augusta prided itself on its lively atmosphere.

“When we have two different groups at a table, and we see that they have started talking to each other, it's a success,” restaurant owner Sebastien Gorius said.

But he thinks it will be some time before diners will be able to bask in that atmosphere again, even after restrictions are lifted.

“There will be a collective trauma for a few years, perhaps a decade to come,” he said.

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How unvaccinated people can use France’s health passport

A health passport is now required to access a range of venues in France including bars, cafés, tourist sites and long-distance travel. For those who are not yet fully vaccinated, accessing the passport is still possible, but more complicated. Here's how it works.

How unvaccinated people can use France's health passport
Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP

The French government has been clear that part of the intention of the pass sanitaire (health passport) is to push people into being vaccinated and as such daily life in France is now more complicated for those who are not vaccinated.

But for those who either cannot be vaccinated or have not yet completed the full vaccination course, it is still possible to access the passport.

EXPLAINED When and where you need the French health passport


The health passport requires one of three things; proof of fully vaccinated status, proof of a recent negative Covid test or proof of recent recovery from Covid.

‘Fully vaccinated’ here means having a vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca – including Covishield – or Johnson & Johnson) so those who received a Sinopharm or Sputnik vaccine do not count as ‘vaccinated’ under French rules. You also need to be at least seven days post your final dose of the vaccine.

Most people have two doses of the vaccine, but ‘fully vaccinated’ can also mean a single dose of Johnson & Johnson, a single vaccine dose if you have previously had Covid or three doses if you are severely immunosuppressed.

Those vaccinated outside France may need to convert their certificates to make sure they are compatible with the French app – click HERE if you were vaccinated in the UK or HERE if you were vaccinated in the USA.

Covid recovery

If you have recently recovered from Covid you will need a positive Covid test that is no more than six months old. If you did not have a test while you were ill, or had Covid more than six months ago, you cannot use this route.

Recent negative test

If you are going for the testing option, there are some stipulations;

  • The test must be no more than 72 hours old (expanded from 48 hours initially) so if you intend to rely on testing you will need regular tests
  • The test must be taken in France, the app does not recognise foreign test certificates
  • The test can be either a PCR or antigen test. Home-testing kits can be used, but only – the health minister says – if done under the supervision of a pharmacist or medical professional (so it seems that you may as well get the pharmacist to do the test).

How to get a test

Some good news for those travelling from the UK, France’s testing system is much less chaotic and considerably less expensive than the UK’s and tests are relatively easy to access.

You can find tests at either medical testing labs, pharmacies or pop-up testing centres – either a PCR or an antigen test works with the health passport.

Medical labs require advance booking but most pharmacies advertise tests sans rendez-vous (without appointment) and pop-up testing centres (which are often just a gazebo on a street corner) operate on a walk-in basis.

Almost all pharmacies offer tests and even quite small French towns generally have at least one pharmacy, and you can also book tests online either via the medical app Doctolib or at

READ ALSO Vital French vocab to get a Covid test

Results for PCR tests are sent out later via email or SMS (usually within 24 hours) while for antigen tests they are generally given on the spot, although some pharmacies send them via SMS, this should not take more than 30 minutes.

How much?

At present all tests are free for residents of France, but from September ‘convenience tests’ for the unvaccinated will need to be paid for. Tests for any reason for vaccinated residents of France will continue to be free, and tests for those with symptoms or who are contact cases will be free for all residents.

Tourists and visitors to France need to pay for their tests.

Costs are capped by the French government at;

PCR – €49

Antigen – €29

What about children?

Children under the age of 12 are exempt from the health pass requirement.

Those aged between 12 and 18 are required to use it, but have a grace period until September 30th to allow them time to get vaccinated, after that they will need to show a health pass to access relevant venues.

France, along with quite a few other European countries, is currently vaccinating all over 12s, but if you are travelling from October from a country where the vaccine is not available to under 18s, then your children will need a test to access the health pass.