Come for the Herring, Stay for the Chitchat: An Unlikely Haven for the Aged

Waiting for food at Staff Restaurant Billstedt in Hamburg, Germany.

HAMBURG, Germany — Ask the regulars seated at the sturdy, rectangular tables in the Staff Restaurant Billstedt, the cafeteria for workers in the basement of a municipal building in Hamburg, whether they have a favorite dish. They all give the same answer.

“It’s all good,” insisted nearly a dozen patrons, most of them over 60, packing four rows of five tables each, when asked about their favorite meal on a recent Wednesday.

“You can get salads, soups, a proper meal and whatever you choose, it is good,” said Karin Ahlf, sitting at a table along the back wall watching patrons arrive, hang up their coats on a row of hooks beside the door and head past the tables for the rack of melamine trays at the counter near the back.

“I have been coming here every day for more than 20 years,” she added.

She’s not alone. Many of the older people in this heavily immigrant district of Billstedt have come to depend on the cafeteria, which, although intended for city employees, is also open to the public.

They like the traditional German fare, affordable prices and the willingness of the chef, Stephan Kulosa, to cut slabs of meat into bite-size pieces for guests who have trouble managing a knife and fork.

Some days, patrons wait 30 minutes in line for plates heaped with slices of juicy roast pork and boiled waxy potatoes, terrines of steaming semolina pudding topped with blueberries or silvery strips of Hamburg’s traditional herring fillets covered with a sauce of sour cream, apples and onion.

Some diners regularly ride several stops on the subway, or drive 10 kilometers, just for the lunch.

But the canteen’s very success among the pensioners — and increasing lack of popularity among city workers — has become a problem for the Hamburg authorities. They plan to close the cafeteria at the end of June, citing the need for renovations estimated at around 1.7 million euros, or about $2 million. That is too high a price, they say, for the income the cafeteria generates.

Jennyfer Dutschke, a lawmaker with the opposition Free Democrats in the Hamburg legislature, asked the government about the decision to shutter the canteen. The answer she received further provoked patrons’ ire; in a formal response, the government said the cafeteria was intended as a place where municipal employees can enjoy one another’s company over a quick, warm meal and suggested that “the missing atmosphere of a staff canteen, given the many ‘foreign guests,’” may be a reason many city workers choose to stay away.

Although Hamburg is booming, Billstedt has remained the port city’s poorest district, with an average annual income of €21,400, less than half the pay in the city’s hip districts. It is also home to a large number of immigrants, whose culinary traditions are visible in the fast-food shops selling falafel, burgers and kebabs.

“Kebabs and more kebabs,” Ms. Ahlf said, shaking her head. “There are three Chinese and several Italians. But since the department store closed, no one else offers traditional German food.”

Elke Horn, 77, nodded as she cut bites of her green beans, praising their tenderness and her meal’s affordability. “We are all asking ourselves: Where are we supposed to go?”

Ms. Horn and Ms. Ahlf, who would not give her age because “all of the men who keep asking me for it would be able to find it out,” are among the nearly 18 million Germans aged 65 or older, according to Germany’s Federal Statistics Office.

Over the next two decades, the number of older Germans is expected to increase to more than 23 million, nearly a third of the population, posing challenges to society and the government over how to provide for them under a social system that is already straining to meet their needs.

Many retirees live off ever smaller state pensions. The number of older people applying for welfare benefits to pad their pensions more than doubled between 2003 and 2015, according to the Sozialverband VdK, an independent social justice lobby group based in Berlin, as more pensioners struggled to meet their basic needs.

Ms. Dutschke notes that older people are often misrepresented in public policy debates because of their reduced buying power and influence. But as Germany ages, focusing on how to keep them active in public life will become increasingly important.

“We need to think more and harder about what we can do for older people,” Ms. Dutschke said, from accessibility to mobility to supporting places like the cafeteria in Billstedt that provide social interaction. “Too often, we are not thinking inclusively.”

For Mr. Kulosa, the cafeteria’s chef, a big man with an equally large laugh, that means offering city workers the right to skip the long line of pensioners waiting for their meals, or providing a carryout option for those who would rather eat at their desks. It also means having his brother, who runs the cash register, take anyone in a wheelchair their meal to their table.

He did not intend to become so popular among Billstedt’s older residents when he took over the place 22 years ago, he said over a plate of feta cheese baked with tomatoes and peppers. It just happened over the course of time. What hasn’t changed are the quality of his offerings.

“I make everything myself, no powders, nothing from a package,” he said.

At 54, he would like to continue running the place, but does not have the money to put into the renovations himself, even if that were a possibility. “Either I stay here or I have to look for a new job,” he said. So would his wife, brother and daughter — half of his staff of six.

Reinhard Neuling is doing his utmost to prevent that. The head of the “60 plus” group of the local chapter of the left-leaning Social Democrats, he went table to table in the cafeteria to gather more than 1,000 signatures for a petition to urge the mayor to reconsider the decision to close.

Mr. Neuling, a resident of Billstedt since the 1970s and self-proclaimed “cafeteria guy,” is steeped in the social history of staff canteens. He worries that the tradition is dying out, leaving a generation with nowhere to go for a square meal.

He points to the restaurant in the district’s municipal culture center, which he said had changed hands. With the new owner came a new name, the “Palace Kitchen,” and a new menu that Mr. Neuling describes as “three leaves of salad on a plate with a few other bits and bobs, all of it organic,” for what he said was three times the price.

“We don’t want a kitchen palace, we just want our canteen,” Mr. Neuling said, gesturing to the window sills lined with potted green plants and framed jigsaw puzzles on the walls. “It’s beautiful just as it is.”

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