The long read: An interview with David Gillies of Public Space
An in-depth view of how the lockdown affected and transformed one of the most celebrated specialty coffee bars in Amsterdam.
We’re living in one of the most volatile times that I can remember. Not even during the last financial crisis or 9/11 was life so unpredictable and had global events such wide-reaching consequences for so many people. Yet, here we are.
If anything, the lockdowns were an insane social experiement that sometimes brought out the best in people and at other times, the worst. Spending all this time at home made us consume global news like a never-ending Netflix blockbuster and it highlighted how wide the gap between those who really took this seriously and those who really didn’t truly was.
It’s no surprise then that countries like Taiwan, New Zealand and Germany have fared much better at keeping infections and deaths lower than nations like Brazil, the USA or England and in some ways, this has led to the creation of parallel worlds that are moving further and further apart in the absence of strong global leadership on how to tackle this crisis most effectively.
For me personally, living in The Netherlands has been a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we had a relatively relaxed lockdown that meant businesses could remain open and going outdoors was not per se frowned upon. Yet, we also lived in a state of ignorance because testing was only being conducted if you were seriously ill. It made it seem like the number of infections in The Netherlands was stubbornly low because many people who were ill, simply stayed at home and weren’t counted.
But at the same time, going through this experience showed a different aspect of society, one I hadn’t seen before. People were patiently queuing outside stores to wait their turn, they were making way for others and they started getting to know their neighbours and striking up conversations with strangers. Everywhere you look these days, you see magazines and articles that proclaim the ‘rebirth of society’. This seems a bit exaggerated but there is definitely some truth to the coronavirus having had, at least, some positive impact.
For café owners, this has been a really bitter sweet experience as I detailed in my previous article. While it is true that many café owners suddenly had a chance to focus much more on their core product, i.e. coffee, for many the lockdown really threw a spanner in the works and almost pushed them to the brink. Luckily, none of my favourite coffee shops have closed down but many had to really rethink how their run their businesses.
One such place is Public Space, one of the most spectacular cafés in Amsterdam. In my personal opinion, David Gillies and his team did a phenomenal job at pivoting from a dine-in café with food, pastries and coffee on one day to a take-away and deliveries only café the next and to get a better sense of how he experienced the whole lockdown and what effects it had on his business, I sat down with David last week for an in-depth interview.
Alex Kitain: Let’s go back to the moment when the lockdown came into effect. You guys were doing really well with your coffee, food and bread and suddenly, overnight, you were told that you had to close. How did you take that bit of news?
David Gillies: From what I remember, Joey and I had already been following news about this new virus for some time and it was really surreal. We had friends who said ‘ah don’t worry about it’ but we started to feel some anxiety about what might be coming our way. I don’t think any of us knew what it would really look like at the time.
The week before the lockdown came into effect, we had a party here to celebrate my birthday and a wave of recent successes but at the same time, we were already getting mentally prepared to close our doors.
It was a difficult decision, of course. As a small independent business, we had no idea what the long-term effect of this closure would be and if it might in any way jeopardise any government support that we might be eligible for.
In fact, we were hoping the Dutch government would tell us to close.
Wow, you were actually hoping to get told you had to close?
That’s really interesting. I remember the lockdown started on a Monday morning in late March and not everyone was actually aware of what was going on. I, for one, got up and went to my gym only to find it shuttered and over night, the whole city turned into a ghost town. In my lifetime, and I’m almost 40, I never experienced anything like it. But at the same time, I remember Public Space being one of the coffee businesses that was the fastest to respond and adapt to this new reality. Tell me how you came up with your new approach that took you from dine-in to take-away.
We had been doing a lot of research into how the virus was getting transmitted and despite the warning signs, we noticed that few customers really took the threat seriously. On the first day of the lockdown, we all came here and had to face the possible truth that maybe this was the end of our dream. Maybe everything we had worked so hard for was about to go under.
That must have been a very bitter pill to swallow.
It was very scary. At the same time, because we’re such a strong team, we all pooled our ideas together to come up with a way to continue running this business in the safest way possible that would protect our own health but also that of our customers.
“We started off with one sandwich and then just went from there. We wanted it to be something a bit luxurious, you know? Almost like, there’s too much going on.”
One of our co-owners, Menno [de Geest], has his own photo and video business and he was the driving force behind our decision to come up with a new take-out / delivery menu, to build a website and film a video to explain to our followers what we were going to do going forward.
It was a big long day but by the end of it, we felt like we had found a way to stay up and running. Now the big question was, would anyone order?
How did your customers respond?
Yea, it was really amazing. In the first week, we had this massive wave of support from our local community. People were so happy that they could still get that little moment of joy or just spend money to say ‘hey, we hope you make it through.’
The week after, we noticed our sales dipping and we had to adapt yet again because we came to the realisation that it was no longer about creating meals. It had become all about production. Our bakery’s output went from 15-20 loaves a week to 60 and we started making things like jams.
Basically, a lot of things that we had been wanting to do but had always been further down on the priority list suddenly became possible.
In all fairness, I think one of the biggest factors in keeping spirits up and businesses open was the weather. For the past three months, we basically had non-stop sunshine. It almost felt like it was orchestrated, didn’t it? As if god said: “You humans are terrible and here’s your punishment for destroying this beautiful planet but I’ll at least grant you some nice sunshine while you have to sit indoors and think about your sins.” If the weather had been really bad throughout the lockdown, would you have done things differently?
Uff, that’s a tough one. I think it would have been a lot harder to make it through. At first, we were only doing deliveries and then when they relaxed the rules, we also started offering the same meals and dishes for take away and that really helped us a lot. By that point, we were doing around 70% of what we normally did in a week. If the weather had been poor, we just wouldn’t have had that opportunity in the same way.
Looking at the food and the menu that you created, which was a mix of take out brunches and sandwiches and so on, what inspired you to create those specific dishes?
At the start, we tried to translate our existing menu into a take out version, which was hard because we always aimed to make our lunch a sexy thing, you know? And then, we noticed that people didn’t really want to hang around, potentially with other people nearby and that drove us create a grab & go menu, in other words, the sandwiches etcetera. We already make fantastic bread here so that was a great way for us to introduce people to our bakery.
But I remember you guys were also struggling to get hold of flour…
Yes, we normally get bio-dynamic flour from Germany and for a time, it simply wasn’t getting past the borders. Even now (mid-July 2020) the supply chains are still not back to where they were before the lockdown. A lot of the produce that we normally get isn’t available because the farms didn’t have seasonal workers. Therefore, building a menu was challenging because something we had one week wasn’t available the next.
We started off with one sandwich and then just went from there. We wanted it to be something a bit luxurious, you know? Almost like, there’s too much going on. There was one that had a pork belly roast that we cooked for 4 hours and then used salt to dehydrate the skin and really puff it up. And then the brunch was something that we thought of as an experience that you could have as a little treat on the weekends that would bring some joy into people’s lives.
How did you feel about the increase in the use of single-use packaging?
Yes. That was very heavy on our minds but it was a trade-off we had to make in order to survive.
Fast forward a few weeks and you were allowed to reopen. Unlike many other cafés, you have a really big space that actually allows you to safely have 30 guests with plenty of social distancing. How has your service and interaction with guests changed versus the pre-corona days?
I think how people come in is different. Not everyone feels comfortable being indoors or interacting with others but at the same time, the rules have changed repeatedly and while they’re more relaxed that doesn’t mean the threat of the virus is diminished. I think personally, I mostly miss the vibe of having a lot of people here and really seeing the place packed and vibrant. It’s more subdued now.
I remember us talking on various occasions about all the different ideas that you had for this space. On the one hand, you hosted pop up restaurants and private functions but on the other, you also talked about possibly adding a barber shop. Now, with all the things that have happened so far in mind, what does the rest of 2020 look like for you?
Of course, all of the ideas we had have been pushed off the table. Right now, it’s about survival. Coming out of the lockdown, the jury is still out. We have to wait and see what the response from our customers will be and of course, whether there will be a second wave and possibly another lockdown. It’s impossible to know.
But the nice thing is that we have also been able to think about what kind of business we want to become. For example, we rolled out our new line of ceramics, which was partially something we really wanted to do but also had to do. We had started to run out of the first line of cups that we started with so this offered a great opportunity to move this project along while we were doing only take away.
We are also finally going to get our terrace, something that we think is a worthwhile investment, especially in this time.
I think one of the biggest lessons has been that prior to this lockdown, we were living in a world that was almost too good to be true. Businesses were doing extremely well, some brands were opening one café or restaurant after another and we kind of got used to being in this really positive economic environment that sort of kept us from building up enough reserves for a rainy day that really very few people actually saw coming. How did this experience change the way you are going to run your business going forward?
For us, we had just completed our first full year in January and things were really going well. We had started making a profit but we definitely did not have any cushion to fall back on. For most of us here at Public Space, this is our first experience at running a hospitality business. We’re all under 30 years old and we just have to be on our A game the whole time. Running this business also means that you have to be inventive when things don’t go so well.
In my case, for instance, I am now thinking a lot more about production and if there is something that we can make and sell, then that can give someone a job even if it’s only temporary.
“I think I can also give myself and my team a pat on the back for having this incredible perseverance when your back is up against the wall and being able to adapt.”
As a team, we also really haven’t had the time to properly process everything that’s happened. It feels almost like wonderland, in a way. A surreal journey to an unknown destination.
Regarding how we can make sure that we have a successful business for the future, no idea.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for my blog where I argued that many cafés were much better off doing only take away. Almost everyone I spoke with told me that they were earning more and spending less while being able to really focus on their core business again, which is coffee. In some cases, they even said they might never go back to having guests indoors although I personally think that’s unrealistic. What was this like for you given that a big part of your business is food?
I think that indeed a lot of businesses were able to take advantage of a reduced menu and running a much leaner business, good for them, while other businesses were not so fortunate. Businesses like ourselves who have a big space, still have to run a much bigger operation because we have to pay the full rent no matter if there are 100 people or 5 people here.
In addition, being in Noord, which many people from across the river still consider to be ‘far away’ was also challenging but we have the benefit of considering ourselves as a destination. We want every visit to be really amazing, independent of what we’re able to offer at any given moment.
Indeed, I always maintained that you guys really set yourselves apart as a place that has a very refined food menu, gorgeous pastries and where you can sample coffees from international roasters that you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere.
Yes and we really try to do that in many more aspects than that. For instance, we’ve started making our own oat milk. We want people to get the sensation that whatever they get here, they can’t get anywhere else. We don’t just want to be curating. And the same applies to our lunch. I always look at what are good breakfast or all-day dishes and how can we add a unique element of surprise to that so that people say ‘wow, that was unexpected’.
I think going back to what you just said about having that moment of joy, cafés played a very important role during this lockdown because they offered people a chance to venture outside, maybe see a friend and at the same time, many people who normally work in offices and never spend time in their neighbourhoods finally got a chance to discover all the different local businesses that are there. That was certainly what many of my friends told me.
We also had that. We had people who live over the road who came to shop at the supermarket next door who said: “Wow you guys are a café? I’ve lived here for three years and never saw it before!” I mean, how cool is that? Sometimes we live life so fast that we don’t even see what’s right in front of us.
If you had one takeaway, no pun intended, from this whole experience, what would you say was the most striking thing that you got out of this?
Personally? I think it’s somewhere in between your own drive to survive as a business and the support from the local community in times like this where people really go out of their ways to be there. It’s this drive to offer something unique to our customers. I think I can also give myself and my team a pat on the back for having this incredible perseverance when your back is up against the wall and being able to adapt. That feels good.
I don’t know, maybe I’ll have something a bit more ironed out when we’re through with this whole thing. I feel like we’re only halfway through and I’m very apprehensive about a second wave.
In other parts of the world, cases are still going through the roof and here it often feels like it’s already over when it’s clearly not.
I think we have to develop a different way to live our lives. A more sustainable, aware and safe way to go about our daily business. For the longest time we just accepted the fact that the lady from the local cheese stall touched the cheese with her bare hands, then handled your money and packed your purchase and we went home and ate the cheese without thinking about how contaminated the food could be. So, I personally welcome stricter hygiene measures but at the same time, we have to find a way to continue living our lives without this urgent fear that death is around every corner. It requires a collective effort.
That is the big challenge right now. For myself personally, it’s all about being in the present and appreciating every day that you are given with the people you love and doing the things that give you joy. Often we just rush through life and from one day to another, things that you’ve worked so hard for could be stripped away. That’s what I felt in particular with this business in this time. I really felt like this was going to be a breakout year for us. We had so many goals but at the same time, some people in our team just said after this, ‘we’re done with hospitality’. And I cannot blame them for that.
So, now we have a smaller team and we’re all in this together for a brighter future.
Our entire supply chain is built around this need to have every category of product available all year around. That’s insane! And because we have such a dependency on trade links, we get completely f***ed when something like this comes out of the woodworks. Hopefully, we’ll come out of this knowing that we can live a perfectly happy and healthy life without strawberries being available 12 months a year.
Indeed, especially in the West, we live in this society that is ingrained in consumerism and often there is a lot of apathy towards broken systems but we need to give ourselves the breathing room and seek out some sort of transformation. Especially now, with Black Lives Matter and other movements that have gained momentum during this time, we’ve had a chance to look out of our windows and see that maybe things are not as rosy for everyone as we think they are and taking this as an opportunity to be more mindful and engaged.
That’s a nice way to end this conversation. Thank you David and all the best to you!
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