Restaurant industry finding it hard to stomach yet another alert level 4. Picture: Supplied
Restaurant industry finding it hard to stomach yet another alert level 4. Picture: Supplied

Restaurant industry finding it hard to stomach yet another alert level 4

By Buhle Mbonambi Time of article published Jul 3, 2021

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Tuesday was supposed to have been a victorious night for Chef Ndumiso Mncwabe.

After years of speaking about it and making plans, he was finally going to be opening his restaurant, AuthentiQ Bar And Restaurant.

He managed to secure an iconic address on Durban's favourite strip: 198-201 Florida Road.

Mncwabe, who has built a successful career as the go-to mobile bar operator and private chef, is well-loved in the city.

Durban's foodie scene was amped to make sure the restaurant's first day is a success.

It didn’t happen.

On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country was going back to alert level 4. Basically, hard lockdown again.

And that meant no restaurant sit-ins, no alcohol sales and no on-site consumption of alcohol.

Restaurants had to go back to doing takeaways and deliveries.

Hearts broke and there was immediate outrage.

Some blamed the government for not respecting the restaurant industry enough to consult with it.

Others blamed the industry for not making sure it complied with the regulations.

But, at the end of the day, one thing remained – restaurants were not able to operate fully and that meant potential job losses in the thousands.

On the Restaurant Association of South Africa's Facebook group, restaurateurs voiced their frustrations at the restrictions that have been imposed on the industry, while celebrity chef, cookbook author and award-winning TV personality, Lesego Semenya, used his Twitter account to highlight how dire the situation was for the industry.

“Let me break it down a little. Those restaurants that do sell takeaways do so with a staff complement that is about 30% of what it normally is.

“One well-known chef I was speaking to, who owns five restaurants, let 50% of his staff go and then the remaining ones work shifts,” he tweeted in a thread.

“When you sit down at a restaurant it isn’t only about food.

“A fine dining restaurant actually makes its money from the wine list and beverages.

“It’s why it was the restaurant industry body that put up one of the biggest fights about the booze ban.”

Grace Harding, spokesperson of restaurant body, The Restaurant Collective, says restaurants had slowly started to breathe after the impact of the hard lockdown regulations forced many restaurants to shut or resort to doing deliveries.

“Once we moved to level 1 we slowly started to breathe. It was definitely not the same performance as pre-Covid days.

“However, it was wonderful to see people back in restaurants and to see our crew having some hope.

“Cash flow remained strained, and restaurateurs are definitely not out of the woods. Then came this wave,” Harding says.

Restaurants have tried to adapt their operating models in order to survive the pandemic.

They have also made sure they stuck to protocols. And when the number of infections started increasing again, Harding says, restaurants ramped up their efforts.

“Most sit-down restaurants continued to follow the Covid-19 protocols. It was not about changing, it was about keeping the customer and crew safe.

The biggest shift was probably around efficiencies. Many of the cuts and efficiencies that Covid ‘forced’ remained and that was a good thing.”

Harding feels strongly that there is no logical reason for restaurants to be closed.

“The curfew and alcohol restrictions we can accept, but not being able to open is now the death knell. There are no reserves to draw on.

“The plight of sit-down restaurants needs to be urgently reconsidered. The broad, unsubtle approach of the current adjusted Level 4 lockdown restrictions that lumps together sit-down restaurants, take-aways, bars, taverns and other eateries, reveals a simple lack of understanding of the operations of each sector and how to best serve and protect the people and the jobs in those sectors.”

Kgolo Mthembu is a Durban club owner and restaurateur, whose establishments, Views at 25 and Luma Sunsets, are closed for the next two weeks.

“We decided that it wouldn’t make any financial sense for us to keep the restaurants open. We are hoping that when the 14 days are over, we will be able to go back to normal,” he says.

Mthembu says the past year has been a nightmare for not only his restaurants but the industry as a whole.

“This stop-and-go thing affects us, especially when it comes to wastage. We have adapted and fixed our offerings for our patrons.

“We had already built up a nice flow and now, having to close, is a major loss for us. So, we decided to just close for the next two weeks.

“We have also given our staff some of the stock we had bought to prepare for the coming week.

“We felt it was important for them to at least have food during this time.”

When restaurants were finally permitted to open last year, Mthembu jumped at the chance to make the best out of a tough situation.

“Thanks to the relationships we have built over the years with international restaurateurs, we were quickly able to adapt our restaurants, thanks to what they were doing in order to make them safe for our patrons.

“We created glass booths at Views at 25 where our patrons could enjoy their meals in privacy and safety.

“We were also fortunate that our restaurants are rooftop, which made them the ideal option for our patrons.”

The executive chef at Cape wine farm, Steenberg and Tryn restaurant, Kerry Kilpin, says they had just announced a return to a full staff contingent at their restaurants before the president's address, after a year of not having that kind of support.

“We had just announced all our staff would go back to normal hours and no short time,” she said.

“The past year has been really tough a complete roller-coaster of ups and downs. It’s really hard to put into words how bad it’s been.

“I definitely couldn’t have thought in my wildest dreams dreamt it would be so hard,” she says.

Stefano Mas, the owner of Pomodoro restaurant in Morningside, north of Johannesburg, revealed that its turnover was affected greatly, due to the lockdowns.

And yet they have kept the restaurant open and adapted as best as they could, by introducing frozen meals that were partially cooked for patrons to order and prepare at home

“Our turnover is down by more than 33%. This has affected our business and our staff in a major way,” he says.

“We have kept an eye on the numbers and adapted to what the market will demand, especially when expecting lockdown regulations to be implemented. We got geared up to handle takeaways in the best way possible.”

For the industry to survive, its needs more people to support it in order to keep the lights on.

While some restaurants chose to close for two weeks, others reverted to the plans they set up last year in order to continue having some income, including take-aways, special gourmet boxes, frozen foods and more.

“We would love them to order takeaways, and we know that many sit-down restaurant experiences are not conducive to take-away food,” says Harding. “Every order, no matter how small, at least keep a few crew members employed for a few hours.”

Cape wine farm, Steenberg, announced earlier this week that it was returning to its gourmet food boxes which it started last year during level 4.

“Our Steenberg @ Home offerings is restaurant quality food in the comfort of your home. We have to change with every curve ball thrown at us.

For an uber-indulgent dinner at home, the five-course Moveable Feast holds the key to an effortless and unforgettable evening.

Tryn also has a convenient takeaway menu packed with home-baked goodies, wraps and my signature calamari or tempura prawns and chips, to name a few.”

Even with all the fears that the restaurateurs have, they are too passionate about the industry to completely shut their restaurants.

“I tried to invest in a completely different business last year, but I wasn't passionate about it and it wasn't a success,” says Mthembu.

“I still believe that it's a viable industry with opportunities for growth. It's going to sound bad, but there are restaurants that have closed, which then provides us with an opportunity to get those patrons to dine at our establishment.”

Mthembu’s sentiments are echoed by Harding.

“People will never stop eating out. Research, conducted by McKinseys international in October 2020, showed that the second-biggest reason people want to leave their homes was to eat out.

“Owning a restaurant that has the right ratios and that is customer obsessed will always be a good investment.

“Restaurants are not going away – we are not typewriters or fax machines. Restaurants are the fabric of our cities.

“When they are closed, it’s as if the city is broken; they are a fundamental part of our societies.”

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