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Will customers return to restaurants?

Restaurants are re-opening next week in Finland amid uncertainty along the entire food production chain.

CEO Jouko Koistinen of the meat processing company Savo-Karjalan liha says his company will be able to supply restaurant demand. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

A week ago, restaurateurs were just beginning to prepare to meet the government's new regulations on serving the public in restaurants and bars that plan to reopen their doors to customers on their premises from 1 June.

This week, the question very much on their minds is whether or not they will actually have customers to serve.

"Do people dare come out? That's the hot question," says Mika Moisander who operates the Iso-Valkeinen hotel-restaurant in Kuopio.

It is not only restaurant owners and managers who are wondering. The entire food production chain of producers, wholesalers, beverage manufacturers and distributors are facing the same uncertainty.

Many enterprises in the sector have been hard hit by the impact of the coronavirus epidemic, being forced to cut back operations and furlough personnel as income nosedived.

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Mika Moisander, operator of the hotel-restaurant Iso-Valkeinen in Kuopio, believes there is a lot of pent-up demand for dining out. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

Some supply problems

As of the start of this week, wholesalers were not yet reporting a spike in orders from restaurants.

According to Jouko Koistinen, CEO of the meat processing company Savo-Karjalan liha, his firm has received slightly more orders this week, but there has certainly not been an explosion in demand.

"Over the past few days it's been more like a slow ramping up," Koistinen explains.

Koistinen says that orders from restaurants collapsed in late March, down by nearly 80 percent. It was at that time that bars and restaurants were closed, except for take-away, as part of the effort to slow the spread of novel coronavirus.

The same story is heard from other restaurant suppliers.

What will customers eat?

For their part, some restaurants are now worried about problems getting what they need to feed customers.

"Many wholesalers have reduced their selections and their inventory. Some people are wondering how well the wholesalers will be able to react in this situation," points out Veli-Matti Aittoniemi, deputy chief executive of the Finnish Hospitality Association MaRa.

According to Aittoniemi, the sector has faced supply problems all spring.

Jouko Koistinen at Savo-Karjalan liha says that everything is in place and ready to go, as does Kimmo Heinonen, CEO of the Tukkutalo Heinonen wholesale company.

"We have good means of delivery and we're prepared," Heinonen stated in an email reply to Yle.

Another wholesaler, Heinon Tukku, which has outlets in Helsinki and Vantaa started getting ready for restaurant reopenings in early May.

"Products from importers especially have been ordered to better ensure availability," says CEO Petri Heino.

It is probably likely though that some ingredients will be missing because of difficulties with the availability of some imports.

Wholesalers are also dealing with the uncertainty of not yet knowing of how well the domestic food processing industry has adjusted operations to new market realities.

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According to Eeva Mertanen, the Kuopio-based Ravintolamestarit restaurant group she heads has a surprisingly large number of reservations for next week already. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

No crystal ball

The Finnish Hospitality Association's Veli-Matti Aittoniemi says that restaurants are taking a cautious approach to reopening. Wholesalers have the same impression.

"I think that the flow of goods will be modest, slow and steady, a day and week at a time," predicts Kimmo Heinonen

The wholesaler Meira Nova sees the biggest challenge for both restaurants and wholesalers as being able to estimate the volumes of perishable items that will be needed during the early days and weeks after re-openings.

That company's CEO, Pasi Berggren, told Yle that a lot of effort has gone into forecasting upcoming demand, but he also pointed out that no one has a crystal ball.

"In the end, the weather may crucially affect how many people come back to restaurants during the first days and weeks." Berggren pointed out.

The Ravintolamestarit group in Kuopio will not be opening all of its restaurants immediately because of the uncertainty about how many customers are likely to show up.

"We will be opening gradually. We are doing everything possible to ensure that it is safe to come to our restaurants. We hope that our customers understand their own responsibility when they do come," points out CEO Eeva Mertanen.