How Copenhagen reopened

The inside story of how two Copenhagen cafes – Atelier September and Lille Bakery – stayed alive during the pandemic and reopened post-lockdown.

As coronavirus fears swelled in Copenhagen a few months ago, chef Frederik Bille Brahe noticed that fewer and fewer guests were visiting his Copenhagen cafe, Atelier September.

‘Slowly, the city began to die out. We had less customers and staff members with families were scared to come into work,’ he says. So, when the Danish government announced that food establishments would have to close on 14th March except for takeaway, Brahe sent home his employees and shut down Atlier September. ‘We eventually found a way to stay open without actually being open,’ Brahe says.

In early April he turned the café into a grocery store for one day a week. Every Friday, customers could collect a bag filled with vegetables, juices and natural wines from local suppliers, as well as Atelier’s signature granola. ‘It’s the least we could do to help our producers,’ Brahe adds.

Denmark was one of the first countries to ban public gatherings and close schools, restaurants and bars in a lockdown that quickly helped slow the spread of the coronavirus. In turn, this led to it being one of the first European countries to open again. And now, as lockdown measures ease, Atelier September has pivoted again.

Food establishments were given the greenlight to open to customers for dining on 18th May with reduced numbers, but Brahe isn’t in a rush to host guests indoors. Instead, the cafe will reopen as a deli and farm shop, where customers can pick up seasonal salads, baked goods, and local eggs to go. ‘It’s a new world now,’ Brahe says. ‘Customers may not want to sit in an intimate setting and will prefer be outdoors where the risk of spreading the virus is lower.’

On social media he has also talked about how lockdown has given him the ‘time to think with a clarity I don’t have when I’m operating.’ On reopening one of his other food and drink ventures – Apollo Bar, which is tucked into the courtyard at the Royal Danish Academy of Art – he posted: ‘[Lockdown] has given me courage to say goodbye to some things and work out what is really amazing and why. The restaurant world has changed now.’ He has stopped serving meat and is setting up an outside bar.

‘We eventually found a way to stay open without actually being open.’

Other cafes in Copenhagen are similarly reluctant to host guests indoors. The owners of Lille Bakery, Zara Boreas and Mia Boland, say that they’re not expecting to open for seating inside this summer: ‘It’s too risky to have people indoors, but we hope to seat customers outside on our deck.’ Lille Bakery stayed open during the crisis through ‘sheer will and enthusiasm,’ say the owners. As lockdown came into effect they looked at their options and opened an online grocery store while starting up a bike delivery service run by friends and neighbours. They also adjusted the indoor cafe space to allow customers to queue for takeaway. ‘The most challenging part of this was trying to serve people as fast as possible,’ says Zara. ‘As customers had to keep a two metre distance in line, the queue was sometimes so long that it overwhelmed us.’

Zara and Mia plan to keep the grocery store running while eventually phasing out their delivery model. Lille was founded in 2018 on the premise of bringing people together under one roof, and customers have remarked over the years on how they love hanging out at the bakery. ‘That’s why delivering [to people’s homes] doesn’t make all that much sense right now,’ Zara says.

Businesses in Copenhagen are aware that adjustments will have to be made as they go. Mia and Zara have committed themselves to staying nimble and are grateful in the meantime for all the support they’ve garnered from their community. ‘We’ll have to see what the next few weeks hold,’ Mia says. ‘There are so many knowledge gaps about this disease, I think we will build several “new normals” until a vaccine is made.’

For Brahe, turning his cafe into a deli will help the business ‘stay relevant’ and connected to the local community. Copenhagen’s restaurants have, in recent years, been a destination for tourists, but if travel restrictions continue, food establishments will need to shift their focus from global to local. ‘Stepping into a new market is really exciting for me,’ Brahe says. ‘Our goal is to be the best deli in Copenhagen.’

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