The painted tables are still there, the special offers in chalk, the light fixtures. You can see them through the glass when you walk by Kreuzstraße 15. The distinctive logo has stayed up, too. If you overlook the “for rent” sign and the cold, efficient specifications taped to the window as some sort of ad, you may think the Poniatowski folks will “be right back.”
They won’t. But I’m sure the memories we made, the music, the laughter, remain stuck like plaster to the walls. They are yet to be covered with a new coat of paint and populated with new furniture, a new scene and constellation.
I was one of the regulars at Poniatowski, and had been excited about the restaurant and bar even before it opened in mid-2013. I had lived in Wroclaw, Poland, and missed the vibe of the places there, not to mention the food and flavored vodkas. Located in the Reudnitz area, Poniatowski aspired to become a hot spot for Poles and other internationals in Leipzig, for gastronomy and also concerts and cultural events.
One evening, my Uni Leipzig colleague Anna Gorski approached me at a barbecue where our professors also were, and said she was about to walk up to them, quit the program, and pursue her Poniatowski business full-time. I admired her courage. She later told me that a series of signs, encounters, talks and coincidences – besides her desire to work more actively with the public and share her culture with them – led her to decide to open the business.
The party-loving spirit of the eponymous Polish hero who inspired Poniatowski’s name and logo echoed throughout the place.
On some magical nights, it would transform from a family-friendly establishment into a Bohemian haven after the clock struck 8 pm – for instance, during the open mics Leipzig Writers would organize. Shots were being doled out with panache at its main bar upstairs, while downstairs, people would perform and then jam together into the wee hours.
I’ve lost count of the times I stumbled home from Poniatowski, including after the parties the university itself would organize there. During its brief heyday, the place brought all kinds of people together.
Cut to February 2017. I hadn’t been to Poniatowski in a couple of months, and had no idea about the crisis they had found themselves in. I only knew that Anna the owner had a falling out with her business partner and also couldn’t be at the restaurant the whole time anymore because she’d recently had a baby.
I was scrolling through my phone during a trip and saw the announcement on their Facebook page that they were closing – an invitation for a last hooray. It felt funereal to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it, but messaged Anna in complete shock. She gave me the basics but I didn’t want to pry; I figured she must be grieving, and wanted to give her space ’til she was ready to talk.
That time finally came this past October. Poniatowski had kept their Facebook page open, and posted that they’d be at the next Fuckup Nights. This is exactly what it sounds like: an organized evening event where people talk about their business or career “fuckups” and what’s next. A fellow blogger who also knew Poniatowski, from The Flensburg Files, was visiting Leipzig, and we decided we’d meet in Kupfersaal to hear Anna’s story.
The venue was filled with dozens, maybe hundreds, of mostly young people – proving that Schadenfreude is alive and well in Leipzig.
But Fuckup Nights is also about embracing failure, drawing lessons from it and not letting it stop you from pursuing your ambitions. In fact, Anna on stage looked more than just all right. She was funny, good-humored, and endearingly self-deprecating when recounting why her dear Poniatowski tanked.
The audience listened raptly, laughing with her, and also audibly feeling her pain. So many memories rushed back to me as she went through her photo slides.
She spoke of having problems from the get-go, one of which I’d realized before: the location. As it turns out, it wasn’t just about the restaurant being on a dark, out-of-the-way street you wouldn’t walk through unless you had a reason. According to Anna, it was also about their not being able to get the rental authority’s permission to have a Biergarten. And then there was the kitchen; outdated, energy inefficient equipment they made the mistake of buying.
Personal developments also didn’t help. Her original business partner deciding she wanted to quit. Her relationship with a second business partner not working out. Becoming a parent to not one, but two babies – a little human and a nascent vodka brand, Stiller Josef. Although she had her husband’s support, it was just too much to carry on her shoulders, Anna said.
As if that wasn’t enough, Poniatowski decided to invest in participating in a Dresden Neustadt Christmas market in December 2016. They’d sold at smaller Christmas markets in Leipzig before, but were ill-prepared for the big time. Anna used the word “flop” to describe it, and that’s probably an understatement, because she estimates they lost €15,000.
But the fatal shot was the same that has been killing other beloved Leipzig spots.
Anna says that the starting monthly rent for Poniatowski was €1,050 in June 2013; after two years, it went up to €1,750, and finally to €3,000. She couldn’t cover that anymore – the restaurant’s sales couldn’t balance out the high electricity and staff bills, as well as the crippling hit at the Dresden Weihnachtsmarkt. They declared insolvency.
I squeezed my way over to the front of the audience at Kupfersaal to speak to Anna after her presentation. She’s now working as a consultant for businesses – sharing her knowledge but not having to run the show, so to speak.
I asked her if she could envision opening another Poniatowski. She told me no, but that she hasn’t given up on Stiller Josef: It’s “to be continued” in a tangible future.
So perhaps some part of the place’s spirit will live on. And it was certainly heartening to see Anna’s spirit perhaps a bit sobered by her business “fuckup,” but still seemingly inebriated on life somehow.
Cover shot: Poniatowski logo against glass. (Photo: Maeshelle West-Davies)