Benjamin Javitz - Authorbenjamin.email@example.com
Benjamin Javitz - Illustratorbenjamin.firstname.lastname@example.org
Victoria Rohrer - Photographerosqledaren@ths.kth.se
Why are things the way they are at Restaurang Nymble & THS Café? For almost 13 years, we’ve been asking the same questions: do THS and our members need to own their own restaurant in Nymble? Why are prices, quality and menus the way they are and which direction should the restaurant take? After all, the restaurant is here for us: the students. Osqledaren went digging for answers.
“It seems that we can have high expectations for Nymble's restaurant in the near future. With a restaurant manager who loves to have us students as a challenge and who has the background he does, we look forward to enjoying what is to come!” (original in Swedish) This is how Osqledaren introduced Johan Delerud in 2010, when he started as Verksamhetschef för THS Restaurang (Operations Manager for THS Restaurants). “We have a great target group here. Everyone is positive and happy!”, he said. Restaurang Nymble’s doors opened on the 4th of October 2010. It didn’t always stay this way through the last 13 years.
When I meet Johan for our interview, he’s just finished 2 intense weeks with external events - some of the biggest events the restaurant has organized this year. “The event we had last week was four days long, from early morning till late night. All of us worked 65 hours in 4 days. It's events like those that are important for THS and for our business as well. They are necessary for us to finance other parts, like the daily events for students.”
A lot of us often forget that THS employs more than 10 staff in our restaurant operations. With several positions vacant, they had to hire temporary workers to keep up their lunch and catering work. The staff situation in the restaurant is quite difficult, and has of course taken a toll on much appreciated offers like the breakfast and vegetarian lunch buffet in the café: “They take a lot of time that we just don't have. With the price increases during the last year it has become very hard for us to predict our costs. You never know if 5 or 40 people will show up, so it wouldn’t be good business for us. We’d be losing money on it.”
The current staff is structured like this: Johan Delerud is the Operations Manager, employed by John Kåberg, chief-of-staff and boss of all the permanent employees at THS. Under him we have both Tina (as Restaurangchef) and Nils-Åke (as Kökschef) to manage the rest of the employees in their daily work.
The restaurant, with all its employees, is entirely owned and run by THS. To “create a lively union building through offering THS members affordable lunch with a low profit margin, and to offer catering to student events,” is the mission defined in the operational directive (Verksamhetsdirektiv) the THS board formulated.
Our survey was answered by 87 students and 5 non-students. 10 of them were vegan, 12 vegetarian. They rated their satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 5. We conducted the survey in Puben during the entire lunch opening hours of the restaurant, via social media, posters and QR code flyers around Nymble and in some chapter halls. We would hoped to have more answers, especially from employees and other non-students.
It also means that the restaurant’s budget is part of THS - with all the possible implications. Initially, the idea was that the restaurant should aim to bear it’s own costs and run like a proper business. But that has never actually worked - throughout the years, several boards and union councils (KF, Kårfullmäktige) realized that going for a +/- 0 result while keeping the same quality and offers would just lead to higher prices for our members, or block the building even more with external events like fairs and company conferences competing with chapters and associations for space. This year, THS restaurant operations will lose about 2 million SEK according to the current prognosis. Last year it was 2,7 million, the year before 2,9 (numbers after fullkostnadstäckningen, a process that distributes the cost of Nymble’s upkeep, electricity, heating, administration and more among all parts of THS). Of course this is heavily influenced by the pandemic, inflation and energy prices - but it’s a trend that has been going on for the last 12 years. It’s money that the rest of THS has to generate somewhere else to keep the restaurant and catering operations running - so clearly we should be questioning what is happening, and try to find solutions. I decided that we should start a survey and ask what our students think - about the prices, about the menu, the quality and their perception of Nymble Restaurang.
Of course none of these discussions are new. In OL#2 2013/14 (OL granskar: Nymble Restaurang, available on issuu.com/osqledaren), Osqledaren tried to find reasons and investigated the catering prices for events during the receptions - and looked into how the restaurant is connected to the alcohol serving permit in Nymble. It was clear that the restaurant business can only really work if we give Johan the necessary freedom to use his experience.
“Let the restaurant run their business without students.” - that was one of the comments we received in our survey. I asked Johan what he thought about it: “Sometimes when we do events for different chapters, they can find it annoying and complicated to deal with THS. Because the restaurant is run by us, and we're not students. We're employed to run it, and that's the way it's gotta be. You cannot run a business like this otherwise. I know for a fact that a lot of chapters are very critical of THS and how things are handled here.”
Some more comments in our survey:
“The staff is very nice and the ambience of the restaurant feels comfortable too”
“I loooove the bistro!!!! And the renovation of THS Cafe has made it sooo cozy!”
“Amazing staff, makes you feel at home!”
“The ladies in the staff are so sweet, too bad a lot of them quit 😥”
“More marketing! I don’t think students are aware of the bistro, the soup or the (late) breakfast buffet. Nor the (actually quite good) work with ecological sustainability.”
Does he ever feel restricted in his work? “There are times when the board has made decisions without actually asking us. A couple of years ago they decided that vegetarian options should be the priority whenever they order food. Without realizing that I offered, many years ago, for them to order leftover food from us at a very cheap price. Because otherwise we would just throw it away. So they decided that it has to be vegetarian. All right. They said, “oh, I need 60 orders of vegetarian food!” We had to throw away our leftover food and start preparing 60 vegetarian dishes instead. Because that's what the board decided. If the board would have come to me and asked, I would have told them it's not a very good idea.”
“It shows a little bit of a lack of respect for our work, because the normal thing would be to ask us if you’re gonna do something that affects our business. I've been here for so many years. Working with students is fun and it's part of what we do and what we want to do every day! But it depends year by year. I don't like when people that are not involved in our business tell us what to do without asking us. And instead they come and tell us what we're supposed to do. Because then you just.. Here you are, you're their employee suddenly, that's supposed to imply whatever, and I know that's the whole business of THS - they’re the one deciding, but sometimes it's not even reasonable.”
You are their employee though, right? “The thing is, we've done so many things over the years that are a lot better than anyone would have expected, if they actually asked us how much we do for the environment. John [chief-of-staff/kanslichef at THS] will come to me and say “This paper says you need to do this.” And I’d explain to him what we actually do and that we already do a lot more than we should. We have not been good at communicating all the things we do.“
Hearing this, I also contacted Adrian Södergren and Ossian Ahlkvist, who proposed the THS Environmental Policy to the Union Council on 18-05-2020 (KF, council of representatives from every chapter and our highest decision-making body). Adrian and Ossian mentioned that they did contact the board and chief-of-staff John with their proposal - the policy was developed further based on this contact.
John clarified that Johan was not asked to give input on the policy before it was passed though - due to how critical a response to the pandemic was at that time. John had also just started his position at THS. Things have changed a lot in this regard - John now tries to include the staff in all his decisions. It is also important to clear up that the current policy (that the restaurant operations should follow as much as possible) speaks of how "Food with a low climate footprint should be promoted in all parts of THS operations. If meat is offered, it should always be an active choice." This does not mean that only vegetarian food can be served during events.
Some more comments in our survey:
“Kvalitén är jättebra. Om något: för bra. Inga studenter äter här”
“Let the restaurant run their business without students.”
“In the restaurant they are serving food of good quality for a far better price-point than any competition.”
“The price and variety is very good for the price (compared to other places in Stockholm), and although You could have wished for more alternatives, given that the menu changes each day, it is great variety. ”
“Bring back the breakfast buffet! I think the best time is do to a testrun during august and september when there’s alot of people on campus and a lot of new students. Make sure to market it properly during this period”
“I only eat at the Nymble restaurant rarely, however I'm always very satisfied with the food, because of it's impressive quality and quantity. Even without the THS discount the prices are quite affordable.”
The purpose of this article - and the survey - is to show the restaurant what their guests think, but even more to increase transparency and understand why things are the way they are, where Johan and his staff are coming from, what the background is. Getting more into the results, I showed him what students thought about the quality and variety of his lunch menus. Is this part of his vision and philosophy? “Obviously, we spent a lot of time on it. I mean we could make things a lot easier if we wanted to. But the whole idea of the restaurant business is for it to be sustainable. Financially sustainable, sustainable for our staff. One of the most important parts for me is that we challenge ourselves. We don't take a lot of shortcuts, we actually cook food every day. We don't open boxes and just put it in the fryer. We try to prepare food that we like to eat ourselves.“
This leads us to another big topic I wanted to explore: vegan/vegetarian options and more sustainable menus. I asked Johan about the vegetarian dishes the restaurant offers as one of the two daily options every Monday, and why only about 1/3 of the 92 students that answered the survey knew about it: “Maybe they don't come on Mondays, maybe they don't read the menu. No idea. Monday is generally a slow day for us when it comes to the vegetarian options. Maybe it's because two options are vegetarian. If you actually put the vegetarian dish next to chicken or beef, only 7% choose the vegetarian option.” Johan is certain that more vegetarian dishes wouldn’t actually sell.
On the other hand, 26 of the 92 guests we surveyed were very unsatisfied with the vegan options in the restaurant. “I mean, the survey had 22 people who are vegetarian or vegan. We do have a vegetarian option every day. There are weeks where we have 3. But it's hard to make everyone satisfied,” Johan replied. Could there instead be a weekly meat and daily vegetarian/vegan options? “Maybe in a vegetarian restaurant. I'm pretty sure that if we went that route, we would lose a lot of our guests. The discussion sometimes is just ridiculous. Sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also economic sustainability. Today we have a dish with chicken on the menu, with chicken from a farm close to Stockholm. One alternative option is tofu from China. I'm not sure what's best, to be honest."
"When we had this huge conference last week, they ordered lunch bowls: 70% vegetarian or vegan because they had this environmental policy. On the first day, the alternative salad bowl with salmon was out in minutes! The next day they asked us to do 50/50, the same thing happened. I understand that you have your policies - but maybe that's not what people actually want. And there are more aspects to this. When we first started 12 years ago, the norm was to cook 180 grams of meat per portion. Today it’s about 140.”
Some more comments in our survey:
“Vegetarian and vegan options should be much more common for sustainability reasons and inclusivity.”
“[...] Vegetarians like variety too. And it hurts no one to just have one meat option a day.”
“One and the same vegetarian option for one week (!) (and a second one on Monday - great) is clearly not catering to a large part of the students at KTH”
“Would also appreciate a more nutritionally balanced vegan/vegetarian selection. Currently it's either oil & carbs or low calories”
“[...] Strive for enabling someone who is vegan to have a different meal every day. Also stop having pork in the pea soup as the default option, that is a blatant violation of the sustainability policy.”
“[...] make the vegetarian option vegan in the restaurant or perhaps mark it as "vegan option available", [...] I don't want to stand in the long line to ask so I just go somewhere else”
“Even though I am not vegan I feel like it is sad that there are no vegan options for people.”
“Maybe "mix and match", so vegan/vegetarian basics and then options of meat/vegetarian or vegan”
Johan also explains that it just takes more work to make vegetarian/vegan food: “With vegetarian and vegan food we would probably need more staff because it just takes more steps. But if you have a piece of salmon, you season it, put it in the oven. Boil the potatoes. Make the sauce, the salad. Done.”
I kept poking: one student commented “does it hurt anyone to only have one meat option per day?” He replied, "We have financial restrictions that say we need to bear our own cost. It’s wouldn’t be financially sustainable. We also haven’t seen that our guests ask for this.”
While we were on the topic of CO2 emissions and more sustainable food, I was reminded of what I saw when I visited student union restaurants in Göteborg and Linköping - CO2 emissions for every dish on the menu: 1kgCO2 for a meat dish, 0,3 for the vegetarian alternative. “There's no time for us to do that sort of thing. I don't even know if that's important for our guests. To be honest with you, a lot of our guests don't even have time to read the menu. I'm sure those restaurants have a menu that's the same every five or six weeks. It makes their planning a lot easier. It's very relaxing to work that way.”
“The way it works here is that Thursday is the day we set the menu for next week. We collect prices from all our suppliers and ask them: what can we get next week? What do you have a lot of right now? What can you get us a nice price on? And then we set the menu based on that. On Friday we finalize and print it. There's no time for us to sit down and calculate our emissions!“
I was interested to find out whether Johan thinks that the current menus follow the THS Environmental Policy that says food with low climate footprint should be prioritized. "If meat is served, it should always be an active choice.” If we have 13 different dishes per week and two of those are vegetarian/vegan, does that follow the policy we try to live up to? To me, it looks like vegetarian is the alternative, not the priority. Johan refers back to economic restrictions: “I wouldn't say it's like that. We also have a policy saying that we have to be economically sustainable and having vegetarian options every day will not be economically sustainable for us.”
It’s clear that Johan and his team are doing what they can with the restrictions and the pressure that THS puts on them: “We talk a lot about the environment. When I first started here, there was no way of organizing our trash. So we decided, before it was regulation, that we would separate all of our trash, which we've done for so many years. That happens nowhere else in Nymble. We reduce the amount of meat we use. We use a lot more vegetables. We reduce the amount of water we use. We try to cook food during the night, so it uses less electricity. We changed our dishwasher so it doesn't consume that much water, electricity and chemicals. We've done a lot of things on our own initiative that I think people are not aware of. “ And he’s right, I had no idea!
We’re in a deadlock it seems. The restaurant - OUR restaurant - is under immense pressure, more than we often admit. And we should have an understanding for that. At the same time, Johan, Tina and Nils-Åke need to accept the feedback they get from their guests - and work with it. They have to work on showing respect to us, students who make mistakes, just as much as we need to work on respecting them more than we are.
Are there solutions when we look at the prices? About half of our answers said the difference between the price for THS members/students and external guests should be bigger. Could this be one of the answers? Johan says that, on average, we have 50% THS Members, 20% other students and 30% external guests. “It's a 15kr price difference already. If we increased the external price then we would lose a couple of external guests. Some of those comments are hard to reply to. People live in this student bubble where they don't realize how much things actually cost - for me it's unbelievable how cheap we are. It cannot be cheaper and we're not making money on our lunches whatsoever.“
“I do price comparisons every year and I'm embarrassed to see our prices when I speak to colleagues. They're like, how is that possible? How do you prepare lunch for 84 crowns a day? You bake your own bread. You get a salad and you get coffee with lunch, and it's actually home cooked food! And my answer is always that we work a little bit harder and a little bit smarter. It's a little bit disrespectful for people to even suggest that we're being pricey. I understand some people want it to be cheaper for our students, but that's why we're here on a Saturday. That's why I'm here, on my 40th birthday, working at an event to make money for THS. “
Johan sees our perspective - but doesn’t want to compromise on his vision: “I think there's a lack of understanding. I understand the perspective that, oh, the quality could be worse and it could be cheaper, but how is that sustainable for my staff? Who wants to work in an environment where you don't challenge yourself, where you cook mashed potatoes from a bag? And if we did, how can we actually have the staff to prepare a nice three course dinner for an external event at the same time?“
“What's important is that we have had a restaurant here for 12 years now. We're still in business. There's not a lot of places that actually are. We increase the amount of food we make every year. We do more, we cater for more people. We’re obviously doing something right, and we're really anxious to listen to all of this. “
“I have a clear idea of what we are doing. I have amazing colleagues. And then we see this. We are here every day. Our guests are not. We know the restrictions we have - in the kitchen, in our staff and from our suppliers. We have to make decisions based on that. I believe that everything we do is for the good of students. “
It’s clear that students don’t agree with Johan on his views. But this perception, whether true or not, can only change if we ask more questions, give more feedback, try to understand where the restaurant is coming from, what restrictions and pressure we put on them. If either one of the two sides cannot accept criticism, we will keep this strained relationship for a long time. And it will be on the back of the students AND on the back of Johan and his employees.