It’s not like restaurants paused and if you push play we can continue as before, says celeb chef

The owners of popular eateries around the country share the challenges they'll face as the industry poises to reopen

25 June 2020 - 13:46 By Hilary Biller
Celeb chef Reuben Riffel.
Celeb chef Reuben Riffel.
Image: Supplied

Restaurateurs have mixed feelings about reopening their eateries for sit-down meals as per the government’s promised partial relaxation of lockdown restrictions. The date upon which they’ll be able to do so is still to be confirmed.

We asked the owners of a bistro in SA’s gourmet capital, a neighbourhood pizzeria in Joburg and a harbourside restaurant in Durban about the challenges they’ll face as they prepare to kick-start their businesses:

REUBEN RIFFEL OF REUBEN'S RESTAURANT & BAR IN FRANSCHHOEK

Celebrity chef Reuben Riffel and his wife Maryke first opened their award-winning Reuben's Restaurant & Bar in 2004; it's set in the heart of SA’s gourmet capital, Franschhoek, which is an international tourist hotspot.

Riffel is hesitant about whether they will resume operating as soon as the government gives the go-ahead, as midwinter is historically a quiet season for the village.

“This is kind of a sad situation because if you look at the industry reopening it's like starting all over again from scratch — and that’s if you lucky,” he says. “Some won’t be able to. It’s not like we paused and you can press play and we'll continue as we did before.”

In the past, his restaurant never failed to pull the crowds. “Perhaps we got too big for our boots, so it’s time to take a few steps back and reassess,” he reflects.

On reopening, they’ve thought long and hard about new ideas and “don’t want to be too rigid”. Their thinking is short seasonal menus featuring a couple of signature dishes and a new configuration that divides the restaurant into sections. There will be one for seated guests, another for takeaways and an area where patrons can buy their homemade goods off the shelves.

“People are looking for a way of getting together again, more casual dining options and, especially for locals, more affordable and accessible dishes,” he comments.

Unsure about the trading hours that will be permitted, Riffel says, “closing at 6pm is not an option for Franschhoek where patrons traditionally eat later”.

He adds, “And if we can’t sell alcohol it doesn’t make sense to open the restaurant at all.”

FRANCO FORLEO JNR OF FRANCO’S PIZZERIA & TRATTORIA IN JOBURG

Tucked away on the first floor of a shopping centre in Parkview, Franco's Pizzeria & Trattoria is a small, family-run Italian eatery that was established more than 35 years ago and is famous for its wood-fired pizza and other Italian favourites.

“We’ve just been keeping our head above water,” says Franco Forleo Jnr, one of the owners, referring to the reprieve the government granted the restaurant industry a month ago, a small window of opportunity which allowed eateries to sell takeaway foods.

For Franco’s, the chance to reopen as a sit-down restaurant presents a quandary. Do they reopen with a reduced staff complement having to fulfil all the restrictions the government will put in place, like catering to a limited number of diners? Or do they rather continue as a takeaway business and pursue their plans to establish their own delivery service?

Why would you come to my pizzeria when you can’t even enjoy a glass of wine?
Franco Forleo Jnr

“There’s lots of fear out there,” adds Forleo, referring to another big challenge they'll have to face: many patrons may be hesitant to frequent restaurants again, given all the health and safety concerns the pandemic presents. 

Like most restaurateurs, the Franco's team eagerly awaits clarity about operating times and is anxious about the thorny issue of whether restaurants will be permitted to serve alcohol.

Forleo is sceptical. “Why would you come to my pizzeria when you can’t even enjoy a glass of wine?" he asks.

GINA BOYD OF 9TH AVENUE WATERSIDE IN DURBAN

Owned by Gina Boyd and her husband, chef Graham Neilson, 9th Avenue Waterside offers way more than splendid views over Durban harbour. They're well known for the more casual bistro-style meals they serve at lunchtime and the fine-dining dishes and tasting menus they serve in the evenings.

During lockdown, the restaurant has been offering a limited takeaway service; the deliveries have been undertaken by the waiters so they too could earn a small income.

More important has been the philanthropic side of the business. They’ve been operating as a soup kitchen and, together with the Salvation Army and with funding from the Eat Out Restaurant Relief Fund, have been providing nourishing soups to the homeless. The base for these soups have come from their small gourmet bone broth business, Dr Broth.

9th Avenue Waterside is in the landmark building that once housed Café Fish at the Durban Yacht Mole.
9th Avenue Waterside is in the landmark building that once housed Café Fish at the Durban Yacht Mole.
Image: Supplied/Wanted Online

Boyd and Neilson are anxiously awaiting the regulations that will govern the reopening of their business.

“There are many rumours about what exactly will be required,” says Boyd. “Most restaurants rely on alcohol sales to boost their incomes and banning booze will cripple most of the industry.”

Looking on the bright side, Boyd believes that only being able to cater for a limited number of patrons means they'll be able to give their customers even better service.

They're looking forward to reopening and bringing back their popular tasting menus. Neilson is also planning to resume his sought-after braai classes, which helped raise funds for their staff during lockdown.