Back during the floods of August 2002, Nils Jebens, Norwegian-born proprietor of three of Prague’s top restaurants watched as his work of the past decade was, quite literally, washed away.
“I was standing right over there,” he tells me, gesturing from our table across the Vltava to the Old Town gate of the Charles Bridge. “By noon we knew that Kampa Park was ruined.” With its covered dining porch right on the riverbank, this legendary Malá Strana favorite among celebrities was the first to go under.
But the real shock came six hours later, when Jebens stood in the rain and watched as the water cleared the barrier of Hergetova Cihelna next door, spilling into the terrace of his latest contribution to Prague’s restaurant scene. An endeavor which had been in the making for over a year, Cihelna was destroyed before it even reached its opening, only a week away.
Despite growing concerns about the ever-rising water, Jebens had determined to stick to business as usual up until the Monday before the flood, when he received a phone call from the Czech High-Water Authority. Pressure on the dam had reached critical levels – the water had either to be let through, or it would come through on its own, taking the dam with it.
Thus began a frenzy of packing up everything “semi-loose” in both restaurants: electrical equipment, kitchen appliances, furniture, even light fixtures; “everything that could fit through the door”. Some of the stuff went to the upstairs storerooms of Kampa Park and Cihelna, and some of it just had to come out – two large-sized truckloads worth. At 6:00pm Monday, vehicular access to the area was barred by the police. From then on, all Jebens could do was stand by and watch as the water slowly crept its way up the shoreline.
When asked how a businessman can bounce back from such a catastrophe, Jebens shrugs. “I’m a pretty sarcastic person,” he admits. “You just have to laugh at it.”
And laugh he did: several grueling months into the cleaning, rebuilding, and negotiating with insurance companies and suppliers, their labors long enough to release a Christmas card to the Prague community: “The First Supper”, featuring his managers and cooks posed in the ruins of Kampa Park, as a recreation of DaVinci’s The Last Supper.
“I was Jesus, of course,” Jebens says, grinning.
And then back to work. By now the three months of emergency insurance coverage had run out, and Jebens continued to pay his staff through the downtime from his own pocket.
Nine months later we sit on the Cihelna terrace, and enjoy the delightful illusion that we are actually floating on the Vltava. An experience which Jebens has provided to his customers at a price.
30 million Czech crowns, to be exact.
If one factors in the months of lost business from six months of downtime and recovery, you have a figure which could bring even the most stable of business ventures to an immediate halt.
“No one just sits on that kind of liquidity,” Jebens states. “If many of my suppliers and business associates hadn’t supported me, it all would’ve just gone bust. At a time like this, people understand if you’re having problems bridging the gap, that it’s not because you just don’t want to, it’s because you can’t.”
When Jebens first opened Kampa Park in Fall of 1994, the severity of the Prague winters kept his clientele at bay. “It was totally empty,” he laughs. “I was working as maitre d’, and we were pulling in maybe 13,000.” Only months later, when the sun came out, did business finally pick up. Not so this year. Kampa Park and Cihelna staged their reopening parties together on 07 February to overwhelming response from the public. “Kampa Park’s a steamship,” Jebens says. “We could close down for seven months, and the staff would still know what they’re doing.”
But the strongest swimmer was Cihelna. In the months that followed the long-awaited opening, Cihelna has caused waves among Prague diners as a successful reflection of the city itself, a finely navigated balance between the casual and the elegant. “We’ve barely had a night that this place hasn’t been completely full, and summer hasn’t even started yet.
What if it happens again?
“Something like this happens, you can’t just pack up.” Jebens answers simply. “You’ve got to keep plugging away.”