Nordsee | Interview

"Politics is not fit for crisis"

Carsten Horn, CEO of Nordsee GmbH.
Carsten Horn, CEO of Nordsee GmbH.

The Corona pandemic has also left its mark on fish specialist Nordsee. The company had to close about five percent of its restaurants. Carsten Horn, CEO Nordsee, in an interview with FOOD SERVICE about the past months, the future of restaurants in city centres and the necessity of product innovations.

What has Nordsee done in the past months to generate liquidity against the background of the Corona-related restaurant closures?
Carsten Horn: We have equipped as many restaurants as possible for take-away and home delivery services in order to keep them open - this is currently successful in around 60 percent of German restaurants - sales cannot, of course, match regular business. In terms of business management, we are concentrating in all areas of the company on ensuring the liquidity (CASH) necessary for survival.

In 2019, Nordsee generated around €270 million in sales from 314 establishments in Germany, according to our Top 100 ranking. How did the company's sales and unit count perform during the Corona pandemic?
In terms of sales and earnings, the Corona year was the most challenging in the company's history. Fortunately, we have been able to avoid major restaurant closures so far. Nevertheless, we experienced a portfolio adjustment of approximately 5 percent of the restaurants in 2020. However, we remain positive about the future, even though we have had a tough year in terms of current sales. We see that the product innovations that we have introduced despite the difficult situation are being well received by our customers. This encourages us to look forward with confidence to the coming months and thus to a positive business development.

Has Nordsee received any state aid?
The aid measures are still of a purely theoretical nature for companies of our size and have had no effect so far. We observe the following limitations: Processes, systems and organizations of the government agencies responsible for application and disbursement are not up to the situation. The German government apparatus urgently needs a holistic transformation. For the above-mentioned reason, the potential aid is not arriving, or not arriving in time - which is fatal for some of the companies affected. The initial aid packages have only recently provided access for larger companies - North Sea has not yet participated in the November and December aid. The November and December aid PLUS and Extra, which were introduced later, clearly came too late, but are generally seen as positive. The core problem is that we will only be able to apply for the aid packages relevant to us now and we lack any confidence that the German authorities will pay out quickly. From our point of view, the politics and the organisation behind it are not crisis-proof. As a result, the majority of the affected gastronomy, hotel and retail businesses are increasingly getting into extreme difficulties.

Has Nordsee had to lay off employees in recent months?
We are working to promote alternatives to the restaurant business, e.g. by expanding the delivery business through the addition of Wolt, and to secure jobs in this way. We see our employees as an important pillar, for the North Sea experience at the counter and hopefully soon again in the restaurant. Our goal is to regain our old strength as quickly as possible and to grow beyond it. Unfortunately, we also have to realize that the crisis, which has been going on for a year now, is putting a strain on our staff.

Nordsee locations include downtown locations and shopping malls. Will there be a post-Corona boom for these units? And how will the search for locations for North Sea take shape after the Corona pandemic is over?
This can only be properly assessed when we know how long the second lockdown will last and what, if any, relaxation of restrictions will take place. We expect business closures and vacancies in the city centers but also in the shopping malls and for the remaining businesses difficult conditions in the "new normal" due to less frequency in general and also decreasing buying behavior in the stationary retail trade as well as in the gastronomy. People will move less in/around places where there are crowds or they will move differently, at least in the initial period. We need to work with our landlords to find new ways to shape this "new normal". The Recovery Phase of the next 12 to 18 months needs partnership burden sharing.
About Carsten Horn:
Carsten Horn has been CEO of Nordsee GmbH since February 2020. He brings more than 25 years of expertise from customer-oriented companies such as Max Bahr, Blume 2000 and Tchibo. Before joining Nordsee, Carsten Horn worked as Managing Director for CinemaxX.

How do you feel about the federal government's decisions regarding food service now that Corona has been around for about a year?
So far, we have supported the need for the restrictions to protect our staff and guests and there will be no two opinions in this area in the future. In the meantime, however, we lack understanding for the plans of the Federal Government and the Conference of Minister Presidents. Added to this is the sometimes seemingly helpless competence of those responsible for concepts and their implementation. Last but not least, the federal decision-making structure with its many solo efforts falls flat on its face. All in all, the political leaders no longer cut a good figure in this phase of the crisis. For Nordsee, the following applies: We are well equipped to resume operations and to make our best possible contribution to containing the pandemic in the "new normal".

Nordsee has just added plant-based alternative dishes to its fish snacks to its portfolio. Does Nordsee plan to establish further vegetarian or vegan product lines in the long term?
In 2021 we will be launching a broad-based product offensive to make our portfolio even more attractive and to attract new target groups, including younger ones. We started with our two classics, baked fish and fish & chips as a plant-based variant. These two new products were developed together with the Dutch start-up Novish, which is positioning itself as a pioneer in the field of plant-based fish substitutes. In the first step, we are focusing on the national roll-out and, in parallel, we are talking to Novish about further, innovative ideas to offer our fans more variety and, of course, to be able to inspire even more curious people with our range of products. Currently, we are seeing an ever-increasing number of consumers who want to eat more consciously and are looking for alternatives to their previous eating habits. We are responding to this trend. With our two new plant-based products, we can offer flexitarians in particular - people who avoid or reduce meat and fish consumption and are looking for tasty products - a delicious alternative.
About North Sea:
Nordsee GmbH, headquartered in Bremerhaven, has over 370 locations and, with its restaurant, snack shop and seafood buffet sales channels, is one of Europe's leading suppliers of fish specialities. With almost 5,300 employees, Nordsee claims to serve more than 17 million customers annually. To date, over 150 stores in Germany and abroad are run by franchise partners.