German restaurants still hungry for customers post-lockdown
There's no sign of the usual lunch crowd at Berlin's Zen Kitchen, with just a few scattered diners dotting its terrace despite the sunny weather.
Two months after Germany lifted its lockdowns, the small Asian restaurant, like so many others, is struggling to attract customers as coronavirus fears linger.
"We've only seen 20 to 30 percent of our clientele back since the reopening," said Zen's owner Vu, whose eatery is located near Berlin's busy Unter den Linden avenue.
Having weathered the pandemic better than many of its neighbours so far, Germany was among the first countries to reopen its economy and its progress is being closely watched across the continent.
Restaurants, bars and hotels have adapted to the new normal with face masks, physical distancing and by asking customers to share contact information so they can be alerted to any fresh outbreak.
But despite the efforts, Germany's hospitality sector has struggled to pick up speed, highlighting the difficulties facing Europe's top economy as it confronts the steepest recession since World War II.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which has pledged over a trillion euros in stimulus spending to cushion the coronavirus blow, is hoping for an economic rebound in the second half of 2020.
"I'm certain that we can halt the downturn in our economy after the summer break and that the German economy will start to grow again by October at the latest," Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the Bild am Sonntag daily.
The unemployment level is expected to keep inching up "before slowly decreasing from November", he added.
- 'Afraid to sit inside' -
But for now the glass remains half full for many businesses.
"The situation is dramatic," the German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) summarised, noting that restaurant owners expect June revenues on average to be 60 percent lower than last year.
"Sure, customers are coming back but very, very slowly," said Sahin Ciftci, the owner of Zeus pizzeria in Berlin's trendy Friedrichshain district.
"People are still afraid to come and sit inside," he sighed, surveying his empty dining room at midday.
The lack of punters combined with the extra expenses caused by the new hygiene regulations have left the sector fearing a record wave of bankruptcies.
"Without more state support, nearly 70,000 businesses will be on the brink of ruin," according to DEHOGA.
Last month, Merkel's government launched a scheme to help hard-hit smaller companies like restaurants cover their fixed costs, offering up to 150,000 euros ($169,000) over a three-month period.
Berlin also hopes a six-month reduction in sales tax from July will encourage Germans to hit the high street and open their wallets again.
But DEHOGA president Guido Zoellick told AFP more targeted help was needed that is "available to all restaurants".
- 'Corona cookies' -
Some restaurateurs are banking on the return of foreign tourists to keep them afloat over the summer holidays.
Germany recently reopened its borders to most EU members as well as a slew of other countries, with more to follow depending on how the pandemic evolves.
Berlin's five-star Adlon hotel, a stone's throw from the iconic Brandenburg Gate, is already creaking back to life with guests thronging its lavish entrance hall.
"The recovery has started. It's slow but it's there," said the hotel's director of sales and marketing Sebastian Riewe.
In Berlin's historic Nicholas quarter, where cobbled streets are normally packed with shoppers and sightseers, cafe owner Sylke Oehler remains upbeat.
"The tourists will come back soon for sure," she told AFP sitting outside her health food cafe Zur Alten Zicke.
Until then, the forty-something entrepreneur is working hard to drum up local custom through advertising and by switching up the menu -- even creating vegan, gluten-free "corona cookies".
"I call it healthy comfort food," she said. "It's won me some new customers."