Daft as that may sound, the recent (and ongoing) lockdown in the Netherlands has proved a real boon for several Flemish cities which have enjoyed a huge influx of Dutch visitors over the festive season.
The Dutch, desperate to escape their own locked down country, have skipped over the Belgian border to flood numerous towns and cities in neighbouring Flanders.
The exodus has provided a much needed massive boost to traders in these places, including Gent, and to business folk like Johan De Baets.
Johan, as so many in Belgium and elsewhere, has suffered enormously due to not one, but two, lockdowns, lasting about a whole year in total.
So who’s to begrudge people like hard-working Johan now directly benefiting from lockdown?
That is what exactly has been happening in recent days, with him doing particularly brisk business at his excellent family-owned restaurant in the city centre.
Gent, as with so many Belgian cities this year, has had no Christmas market to help boost end-of-year trade (a major loss) so the influx of visitors from across the border has come as an unexpected, but welcome, relief to people like Johan.
You cannot say he does not deserve it. After 27 years at Du Progres, his restaurant, he readily admits to never before experiencing anything like the current coronavirus crisis.
“It has been quite awful,” he says.
Even so, he’s commendably managed to keep hold of his 16-strong workforce at the resto which overlooks Gent’s main marketplace (yes, where the Xmas market would normally be located).That,in itself, is some achievement in a horeca industry that has been especially hard hit by events of the last two years.
The only loss has been “voluntary”, with Irish-born head chef Aidan choosing to return to his homeland, leaving his two former sous chefs, the wonderfully-named Magic and Kumar now in charge of things in the kitchen.
Magic, from the Czech Republic, and Kumar, who hails from Pakistan, have worked at the resto for three and seven years respectively and, as Johan says, were “well trained” by Aidan.
Johan’s staff are very loyal and say their loyalty is a reflection of what a “great” employer he is. One example is that he made a point of holding regular Zoom meetings every week with all the staff to help generate team bonding during the lockdown when the resto, as others, had to close its doors.
Amazingly, one waiter – Philip – who retired recently had worked at the restaurant for some 48 years. He started there at 16 and remembered Johan as a kid because it was Johan’s grandfather who first launched the place way back in 1952.
Back then, it was just a humble café serving Belgian beers where folk could play pool.
Johan’s father, professionally trained at a hotel school, later took over the place and was responsible for turning it into the brasserie it is today.
After working under his dad for five years, it was Johan’s turn to take the reins and he is still in charge today, running the business with the very welcoming Gent-born Stijn Verpaele.
Stijn, who used to work in a local factory producing jenever, the Dutch/Belgian liquor, works in very close collaboration with Johan.
Johan says that at the start of every year he “tries to set out some goals” for the business and the pair will soon be holding a “brainstorming” session to map out plans for the New Year.
These will include, though, a completely redesigned new bar at the entrance and new furnishings.
“That is,” cautions Johan, “assuming that we will be allowed to stay open this year!”
The restaurant itself is a great advert for Gent: welcoming and offering very good value for money.
The menu, as ever, is focusing on fresh, locally sourced products, something Johan and Stijn both consider to be particularly important, not least as supporting local producers at the current time is so vital.
There’s a lovely choice of dishes, ranging from meat to fish, with some great beers and wines to wash it down with.
The favourites, as ever, are the steaks, some with very imaginative named sauces, but the sole has also grown in popularity too.
One thing is for sure: this is very tasty food which comes at a great price and served by very cheerful staff who are clearly very happy in their work – a testament to Johan et al.
They include guys like Gent-born Dirk who sums up the place by saying, “It’s a happy place to work and that’s thanks to Johan.”