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

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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