Nourishing Mind and Spirit: The Future of Budapest’s Restaurants

Retail

David Holzer finds his mind, not to mention his stomach, pining for the forbidden fruits of a Budapest restaurant, and wondering what the hospitality scene in the capital will look like post-pandemic.

Roy Zsidai

For these past couple of months of lockdown and restrictions, I’ve been dreaming of the Pierrot restaurant in old Buda.  

It is part of the Zsidai Group which, in Budapest alone, owns 21 Hungarian Kitchen, the Pest-Buda Bistro, Baltazár, ÉS Bisztró and Deli, the Spíler chain and the Jamie Oliver franchise. Hundreds of thousands of guests eat at the group’s restaurants and bars every year.

I’d assumed that, like other upmarket Budapest restaurants, the Pierrot would be offering home delivery. When I discovered it wasn’t, I was curious as to why.

“Home delivery is the arch enemy of the full-service restaurant business,” Roy Zsidai, CEO of Zsidai Group told me. “It’s a global trend that, along with the growth of convenience food, was eating into the business way before the pandemic. We looked at it but realized it’s no way to make money. Restaurants with high standards like ours can’t do home delivery sustainably.”

Apart from the financial side of things, there’s a more philosophical reason why Zsidai Group doesn’t do home delivery as a business.

“Home delivery purely provides nutrition for the body. Full-service restaurants like ours also nourish the mind and spirit,” Zsidai says.

Visiting a Zsidai Group restaurant, “is a multi-dimensional experience. We consider everything from where the tables are placed to the cutlery you use; every little detail your senses experience. You can’t deliver that at home. Which is why you go out to a restaurant like Pierrot.”

Considerations

Is home delivery out of the question for Zsidai Group?

“We’ve considered ways of doing it,” Zsidai admits. “We’ve thought about delivering semi-prepared food you can finish at home, perhaps following video instructions from one of our master chefs. It’s possible to deliver some pretty amazing food this way. I often bring home half-prepared food from my restaurants. I need very little time to prepare a meal compared to starting from scratch. If I’m hosting my friends, I can chat. I don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen,” he explains.

“But this kind of home delivery won’t ever be cheap because of the ingredients and the fact that it’s partially prepared by a chef. You’ll also have to put in some work. I don’t believe it’s a mass solution for people just wanting a pizza or burger in 30 minutes. And, in any case, it’s not something we’re considering offering right now.”

Where does that leave Zsidai Group, obviously facing tough times? “We’ll survive. We have reserves. We’ve made calculations depending on various scenarios and have a pretty good idea of how much money we’ll need to put into the business to stay alive in the next year or so.

“Rigorous, strict economic and business discipline – as well as passion for the business and great respect for everyone we work with – has enabled us to weather previous economic crises in 1989, 1998 and 2008. Ours is a family business that has survived a lot of hits, literally. During World War II, my grandfather’s tank was bombed in front of Pierrot back when it was a bakery and he’d just gone in to buy bread.”  

Some restaurants and bars are taking creative steps to make their places look fuller, like putting mannequins at tables. One restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania, is using mannequins to showcase creations by local designers. Was Zsidai open to something like that?

“It’s a funny idea. And the idea of a tie-in with designers is good. Who knows, we may try it. But, let’s be clear, this kind of gimmick won’t last and won’t fundamentally change the restaurant business,” he insists.

The Human Interface

“It’s the global trends I spoke about earlier that will affect us. Technology and automation create opportunities but also eat into the full-service restaurant business by making delivery and fast food cheaper: There will be increasingly less of a human interface in these segments and food technology will become ever more sophisticated. Robots that can create simple pizzas and burgers already exist. The pandemic and its aftermath have certainly given the industry more of an incentive to consider automation. It’s a question of how fast the technology can be rolled out.”

What, then, does Zsidai think is the immediate future of the Budapest restaurant business?  “Restaurants like ours, in central Budapest locations, are around 80% dependent on tourists, business people, corporate events and visitors from outside the city. Before the crisis, the market was pretty much oversupplied in all these segments. Now, demand is minimal,” Zsidai says.  

“We’re hoping that restrictions will be lifted by mid-June, allowing free travel within the whole of Europe. This is necessary to not further devastate our economy. If restrictions are lifted, things could pick up in August and September. We then need to find ways of containing a potential second wave in the fall and winter, so this doesn’t kill international travel and the economy entirely.”

Given a good wind, that will see the hospitality world into next year. “By spring 2021, we should then have a tourism and restaurant business that’s workable, profitable and hopefully sustainable for those that remain in the market. But, even if the government is as efficient as it can be, I expect that at least 20% of the market will disappear. Without being too fairytale about it, I hope the good restaurants are the ones that survive. We’ll be doing everything we already do: entertaining and spoiling our guests.”

At that, I thought of Gyuszi, our waiter both times we visited Pierrot. The way he treated us was every bit as much of why we loved the restaurant as the food and the ambience.

I asked Zsidai to pass on my best wishes to Gyuszi and the message that we’re looking forward to seeing him again in the not too distant future.

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