The coronavirus has put the Italian hospitality sector on its knees. But the industry is finding its ways to stay positive and to fight back
On 16 March, the UK government advised people to stay at home, avoid visiting on-trade venues and any social contact to minimise the devastating effect of the coronavirus outbreak. By then, Italy had already made the headlines as Europe’s worst-affected country, with the virus proving devastating for the Italian drinks and hospitality industries.
‘In Italy, the government’s first official alert was released on 31 January, though it didn’t make much noise in newspapers and broadcasting news,’ says Eleonora Lolli, freelance somm and wine tour guide.
The situation however, escalated quickly over the first weeks of February; later in the month restaurants began feeling the damage caused by covid-19 and by 1 March things had slowed down considerably: ‘I was helping out a Tuscan restaurant located not far from the Emilia-Romagna border on its busiest services. Then it all stopped on 1 March because of no reservations,’ she says.
A couple of weeks later, most restaurants and licensed venues had ceased activity.
The Italian hospitality industry had to adapt in order to survive. A number of on-trade venues implemented take-away and delivery services, while distributors reinvented themselves as B2C businesses.
In Lombardy’s Bergamo, one of Italy’s worst-hit cities, morgues were at full capacity. The pictures that portray military trucks on their way to remote crematories, shifting hundreds of coffins across its deserted avenues are chilling and disturbing.
Yet it's in this scenario that the hospitality industry manages to prove its notoriously resilient character: after the shutdown, Bergamo's three-starred restaurant Da Vittorio began delivering four-course set menus across neighbouring provinces.
Not all managed to keep the kitchen running. Not even Massimo Bottura and his Osteria Francescana. This hasn’t stopped the world-renowned Modenese chef kicking off Kitchen Quarantine though, a home-based cooking show streaming on a daily basis on Instagram, and whose videos peak at over a half a million viewers. He's fighting the virus with resilience and a healthy dose of self-irony.
Smaller operators are finding their ways to fight back too: ‘I’ve got a story that has given me strength,’ says Lolli as she tells me about a restaurant located in a small town of just under 300 inhabitants, on Emilia-Romagna’s Pennines. ‘The chef owner is really going the extra-mile to provide the town with all the bread, fruit, veg, milk and flour it needs, despite grocery shops being nearly empty and distributors running low on stock. He has reinvented his small activity doing deliveries and take-away.’
‘I'm with the restaurateurs’
‘The impact of the crisis has been dramatic; all of a sudden there were zero bookings,’ is the testimony of Davide Calderini, wine and beer sommelier at Antica le Betulle near Udine. ‘The worst affected are family run businesses, small restaurants.’
Like many, Calderini has – for the time being – been kept on payroll but now hopes that the restaurant will be allowed to reopen as soon as possible after the Easter break.
Ligurian restaurateur Alessandro Grillo isn’t as hopeful about the near future. He was about to launch his first solo venture when the lockdown forced him to change his plans. ‘Fortunately we aren’t tax-registered yet and we haven’t got any employees either,’ he says, but highlights that he worries about rent and outstanding wine deliveries, all due at the end of April.
With the lockdown unlikely to end anytime soon, invoices are still waiting to be cleared and rents to be paid for, but the Italian government hasn’t deployed any financial help aimed at the hospitality industry, ‘only to farmers and winegrowers’, Lolli points out.
As a response to the lack of government support, a group of startup firms and private consultants teamed up and launched the ‘Io sto coi ristoratori’ campaign (I’m with the restaurateurs).
The campaign is committed to help restaurants get through the coronavirus crisis by offering a number of services for free, such as helping to transition some of the business online or implement deliveries and take away.
It's about being aware of the dramatic implications that the outbreak is going to have, taking deep breaths and thinking outside the box. Some even highlight the positives. While waiting for her restaurant to reopen, Piedmontese somm and bar manager Francesca Lisa Canu is making the most of her time by boosting her spirits knowledge to get back on the floor stronger than ever: ‘I’m preparing for the European Bartender School,’ she says, ‘study is the best thing I can do right now.’
‘Andrà tutto bene’ (it’s all going to be alright) went viral over the past few weeks on Italy’s walls, windows, and on social media. It’s a message of hope that echoes across the rest of the world too. Perhaps in the end, it’s all going to be alright.