We want you to stay home, but we NEED you to eat out, says restaurateur

The hospitality industry is one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and it's forcing restaurateurs to make tough decisions, writes Steve Steinfeld

19 March 2020 - 00:00 By Steve Steinfeld
While some restaurants have taken the decision to close down during the coronavirus pandemic, not all of them can afford to do so.
While some restaurants have taken the decision to close down during the coronavirus pandemic, not all of them can afford to do so.
Image: 123RF/Daniil Peshkov

The local hospitality industry rarely receives the credit due for weathering the fierce storms it has in recent years.

There’s been the longstanding undercurrent of a recession and rapidly increasing inflation, not to mention the damage done by load-shedding. Through it all, those worth their salt have put on a brave face and continued serving up delicious food — often at ever-decreasing profit margins — to keep the seats in their restaurants full.

Now we’re once again asking these fighters to get back in the ring and take on their biggest challenge yet: the coronavirus pandemic — and with it the increasing number of people who are steering clear of crowded spaces or self-isolating.

It's simple to say, 'Well, why don't restaurants just close until it all blows over?' - but the harsh reality is that most just can’t afford to close shop for a week or two.

In addition to making a living and paying their staff and suppliers, some restaurateurs have to consider complicated lease agreements which demand that their stores stay open or they'll face penalties.

The fact that the government has introduced strict new regulations regarding the operation of restaurants which serve alcohol in an effort to curb the spread of the virus presents further challenges.

For employees working on shift wages, who rely on tips to supplement their salaries, fewer patrons, shorter operating hours or temporary closures mean a loss of income — not in the foreseeable future, not next week, but right now.

BYE FOR NOW

A number of restaurateurs have announced that they will be temporarily closing up shop. This includes celebrated chef Luke Dale Roberts, who'll be shutting down his four Cape Town restaurants — The Test Kitchen, The Pot Luck Club, The Shortmarket Club and Salsify at The Roundhouse — until the end of the month, if not later. 

“With the country’s president announcing a national state of disaster due to the Covid-19 virus, we feel that you should know that the wellbeing of our guests and employees remain our top priority. A great percentage of our clientele are travellers from around the globe and as such it is best that we temporarily close shop and do our part in stemming the current health crisis,” said Roberts of his decision.

The decision has also resulted in the premature, permanent closure of The Shortmarket Club's edgy sister restaurant, The Commissary, which was inten ded to close only later this month. 

Celebrity chef David Higgs will also be temporarily closing two of  Joburg's hotspots, Marble and Saint.

The announcement was made on social media, where Higgs explained: "We have decided that this is the best way forward for our team and our guests. At this stage we are not sure of much but to protect our people. Please look after your families and loved ones. We need to slow this down. Keep your distance."

Higgs has yet to announce when these eateries will reopen.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Restaurateurs who will be keeping the lights on have also taken to social media to share their response to the coronavirus pandemic - some to inform their customers of the preventative and protective measures they've put in place,  others to open up about the challenges it is creating for their businesses. 

Farro Restaurant, in Illovo, Joburg, wrote a heart-wrenching Facebook post that highlights the tough decisions restaurants are having to make.

An extract reads: "We are open. We probably shouldn't be. We feel it is our social and moral responsibility to close our doors and let this health crisis pass ... Unfortunately at Farro, we are on a knife edge, and were so long before the words 'pandemic' were uttered. (Thanks Eskom, thanks inflation, thanks skyrocketing food costs).

If our little restaurant isn't 80% full every night, we fold.
Farro Restaurant on Facebook

"Due to this, we don't have any reserves. Our bones are exposed and it'll take only the flu to bring us down. If our little restaurant isn't 80% full every night, we fold. We have 18 covers on the book this week, the whole week. That's one table, per night.

"It's a very, very difficult place to be, because we need you to come here. We need you to eat. We need you to help us pay our staff and our rent. But we also want you to stay home - to stay safe, to flatten the curve and get this virus the hell out of our lives. Where do we go from here?"

The message is a jarring reminder of the long-term financial effects that this pandemic is likely have on the local hospitality industry.

Most insurance companies don’t cover pandemic-related loss of income, and while buying vouchers for your favourite eatery on a pay now, eat later basis (as suggested on social media) is a wonderful gesture, it's not a long-term cash flow solution.

Takeouts and deliveries are on the rise but will do little to combat the coronavirus-related losses restaurants will have to carry over the coming months.

Only time will tell what the full impact of Covid-19 will be on our culinary scene, but it’s up to all of us to do all we can to fight this battle with them. Support your local eateries in whatever way you see fit.