RESTAURANTS UNDER SIEGE #1

Cape Town: Determined to survive a pandemic – and the winter beyond

By Bianca Coleman 20 March 2020

Waiter Aristote Wayela at Truth is well armed. All customers are being asked to self-screen prior to entry, and hand sanitiser for clients is mandatory as an entrance requirement (it is available at the door). Photo: Chantelle Horn

The economic knock-on effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is already hitting South African restaurants hard. From closures to adapted services, Cape Town restaurants and wine farms are doing their best to ride out the restrictions – but it’s not easy.

It’s the hope that South Africa is ahead of the world curve in fighting Covid-19 that could keep us going. At least, it did for a little while. Within 36 hours of beginning to put this story together came the official announcement that all shebeens, bars and restaurants selling alcohol are to close at 6pm, and reopen at 9am. Pretty much any place you can buy and drink booze, unless they are entertaining groups of no more than 50 people.

All of those interviewed for this story emphasised how stringently they have applied the hygiene protocols in their businesses thus far (some even earlier than this week), from front of house to kitchen and every smooth surface in between.

In conversation, less than three days following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initial statement on Sunday 15 March, the sheer exhaustion of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic was already evident in all their voices. Crazy times, they said. Overnight, this conversation turned into what might happen – to the harsh reality and worst-case scenario of closing down their restaurants completely.

Restaurateurs are facing their worst nightmare. Customers have declined drastically, and forced closures will leave thousands out of work. Reduced revenue and turnover (most places have implemented social distancing with fewer tables) will make it impossible for employers to give their staff unlimited paid leave, no matter how much they wish they could. Bills still need to be paid, VAT is due to the government at the end of the month, some landlords are offering lower rentals but others are not, and all of this comes on the heels of bad seasons due to the drought experienced in the Western Cape in 2018 and ongoing load shedding.

But yet there is hope. Chris Coetzee, operational partner at Jonkershuis at Groot Constantia and Blockhouse Kitchen at Constantia Uitsig, says that while 90% of function bookings have been cancelled, if they can hang in there for two or three months they can have a “really lekker” winter. “By then I’m sure everyone will want to get the hell out of their house and actually come support the local guys.” he says.

“We have to keep going. We employ 158 staff and it’s not just them, it’s their families we support so we have to trade as long as humanly possible just to get as much money in as we can so we can afford wages if we do have to close,” says Coetzee. 

Besides the (un)usual practices, the restaurants have thermal testers which are used to check staff’s temperatures within seconds, and guests are welcome to use them too. It’s a non-invasive forehead device, and apparently children love it.

“We trained all staff hectically – they may not talk to guests while carrying food. They don’t announce food – they put it down, stand back and then announce. There is an alarm in the kitchen every 15 minutes to scrub and sanitise, likewise front of house. If they touch their face, cough or sneeze, they leave the table and sanitise immediately,” says Coetzee.

“We’re all in this together and I have a feeling we will be forced to close as both our restaurants are on wine estates. We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that. All we can do is take it day by day.”

Commenting on the announcement from the government early on Thursday morning (March 19, 2020), Coetzee said they would be contacting Fedhasa (Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa), of which they are members, to address the vague, fuzzy grey areas – particularly regarding the number of people who can be seated. It’s now a very real possibility that one of the restaurants will have to close, allowing the other to continue as long as feasible to cover staff costs. “Staff come first. We will do our very best to keep them paid and their families fed,” said Coetzee.

Mere hours later, the decision was made to close Blockhouse Kitchen with immediate effect. As it’s the newer restaurant of the two, it will be more viable to keep Jonkershuis trading as long as possible. “It’s going to be crippling,” says Coetzee, adding that the number of 50 people at any one time includes staff as well as guests.

Looks like none of us is going out for dinner any time soon.

The wine farm aspect Coetzee mentions is quite critical, and topical. At the beginning of March 2020, a Dutch tour group visited some 30 wine farms over a two-week period. Upon his return home, one of the members tested positive for Covid-19. Many of the farms they visited voluntarily closed their cellar doors and tasting rooms. Staff who had been in direct contact with the man immediately self-isolated and so far, so good. The Dutch man is all right too, as are some other members of the group who had mild symptoms, and another two who also tested positive.

Point is, one of those farms was Constantia Uitsig. There is an official statement on its website, and the mandatory two-week quarantine period has concluded. Coetzee says Blockhouse applied all its safety measures but did not close. The Kind Kitchen, however, did. The vegan eatery opened its second branch on the farm seven months ago, adding to its Woodstock restaurant.

Tables at The Blockhouse Kitchen were spaced out to allow for social distancing, but it wasn’t enough to keep the restaurant open. Photo: Blockhouse Kitchen

Owner Jay Mac (McNamara) says the latter is still operating but at about a quarter of its normal trade. “It’s a massive knock for small businesses,” he says. “It’s still too early to see the impact it will have.” And while the Uitsig restaurant can reopen today, the anticipation of what would normally be a busy weekend is probably not going to happen. It’s shattering for these guys. 

“We’re all posting on social media and trying to let people know we are sticking to the most stringent health and hygiene standards – not that we wouldn’t have before but I guess now it’s in the limelight,” says Mac. “From a small business owner point of view it’s a difficult one to navigate right now. I’m taking it day by day with my staff, putting them on short time to be with their families more.”

The Kind Kitchen at Constantia Uitsig decided to close until today (Friday, March 20, 2020) following the case of the Dutch tour group operator visited the farm and later tested positive for Covid-19. Photo: The Kind Kitchen

And then comes another spark of hope: “When this is over, people will be coming out in their droves again to eat and have fun, so this is not the end of days,” says Mac. “A lot of us are hoping it will go away but it’s a reality and by Friday it will be more so. We’re trying to stay optimistic.”

Lars Maack, owner of Buitenverwachting in Constantia, says as far as he can gauge the situation, the majority of farms are still open for business. “Some had real exposure to the virus through a Dutch travel group and required time to sterilise their premises and assess the impact on their staff.

“Ultimately this is about the personal choice of our guests and staff alike. As the situation is extremely fluid, we will adapt to potential changes and will consider total closure if required.”

What most restaurateurs are seeing is a distinct increase in deliveries, via Uber Eats and Mr D Food, or through their own services. Partner chef at Blockhouse Kitchen, Brad Ball, has a side hustle (his words) which is a godsend for him right now, and for customers who wish to stay in their homes. EasyCook is a delivery service, available from Lakeside to Claremont in the southern suburbs, or for collection in Tokai. Meals are for four, but if you see the sticky Chinese (safe, I swear) pork belly with star anise soy caramel, and sesame Asian greens, you don’t have to feel bad for wanting to keep it all to yourself. Ball says he’ll soon be introducing meals for one or two. Send “register” to WhatsApp on 072 244 8637 for the weekly menus. Click on the meal, order amount, hit SnapScan and pay.

Marc Botes from Botanicum Café & Grill in Constantia says they will be pushing the delivery side of things. He’s reduced his seating from 60-70 down to 45, but adds they’re lucky if they get those 45 covers right now. There’s a smile in his voice, but it’s a tiny, brave one.

Among the measures at this restaurant is extensive staff training. “We give them quizzes, to make sure they know and understand transmission and symptoms and so on, and to let us know,” says Botes. This is to ensure the information is absorbed and retained. 

They’re also encouraging cashless and contactless payments. “We are trying to alleviate the use of bill folders and pens; we do it verbally or the customer can use their own pen.”

It goes a lot further than just the restaurants, however. Have you given any thought to the suppliers? “We treat all produce and packaging as a ‘foreign agent’ – the words we’re using are crazy – and sanitising everything that comes in,” says Botes. 

“It’s a work in progress, and we are working together. Most of the guys have been great. We are covering all the bases, acting responsibly, and learning all the time. We want our customers to trust we are doing everything we can to ensure their health and safety.”

At Catch 22 Beachside Grill & Bar in Table View, owner Gabbi Katz says we don’t even realise the ripple effect of what’s happening now, and how many people’s lives it’s shaping. 

“What is good is that we have received numerous emails from our suppliers who are assuring us of the extra precautions they are taking,” she says. “Like extra sanitary and safety measures as far as their drivers are concerned, private transport for staff (not public), hair nets and gloves, packaging warehouses to delivery are sanitised. 

In addition to precautionary measures taken in the restaurant, Gabbi Katz from Catch 22 Beachside Grill & Bar, says it extends from the frontline all the way to the suppliers. Photo: Gabbi Katz

“It’s important for the customer to know it’s being taken seriously by the whole industry, and in the background as well, not only the restaurants on the front line. So hopefully that also adds some extra reassurance.”

Katz has even more cause for concern: her father Ivan is in hospital undergoing chemotherapy and seriously immunocompromised, putting him in a high risk category. Having always kept the concern for customers as a priority, Katz’s own health and that of her staff is now a massive apprehension. No wonder we’re all so stressed right now.

“It works both ways, and we are getting our heads wrapped around this,” she says.

Catch 22 uses Delivery Xtreme takeaway delivery service, and will even walk across the road themselves to nearby apartment blocks to deliver a sushi fix.

Steve van Schaik, owner of the courtyard in McGregor, is another one struggling with personal health concerns. “It’s really difficult to make sense of everything that is going on,” he posted on Facebook. “On one side you have people making light of the situation we find ourselves in and making jokes of the situation and others taking serious precautions and panicking about the spread of the coronavirus. 

“I have a wife who has a suppressed immune system from medication which she requires after a double transplant. Meg falls into that tiny category of those who would most likely die from contracting the virus. 

“We also have put all we have to build a beautiful business that relies on the arts and crowds to earn an income. All shows have now been cancelled. We have staff to feed. Can we take this situation lightly? Should I leave the house and put her at risk?”

You can read the full post here

Many of the farms that closed their doors cater for bigger tourist groups. Klein Roosboom in Durbanville is one of the few remaining family-owned farms that concentrate on smaller, intimate tastings, and where Jéan Restaurant opened its doors in August 2019. “We will feel this crisis, but we plan to be innovative and make the best of the time ahead of us,” says owner Karin de Villiers.

“We shall aim to find the balance between acting responsibly without becoming hysterical or over-reacting. We’ll use the time to educate and train our staff from the farm in bottling, pickling and preserving food.

“The best quote I have heard is that more people will be bankrupt than dead after this crisis.”

Steps De Villiers has taken include cancelling Klein Roosboom’s harvest festival this weekend (with full refunds), and implementing a “you ring, we bring” food and wine delivery service. You can also enjoy a wine tasting in a private cave.

Among all the emails and social media posts, Truth Coffee Cape Town opens by saying “At the risk of being ‘just another’ Covid-19 CEO statement, here goes:

“These CEO ‘statements’ aren’t just lip service or as one hack put it, ‘oh good I got their mailer, thought they were already out of business’. That is a real risk. Fear has no place in times like this. Caution does. We need to collectively care. This is us giving a shit. Truly giving a shit. (No toilet paper stockpiling required; sorry, not sorry, couldn’t help throwing that in.)

At Truth, all customers are being asked to self-screen prior to entry, and hand sanitiser for clients is mandatory as an entrance requirement (it is available at the door). Waiter Aristote Wayela leads the way. Photo: Chantelle Horn

“As a company, Truth Coffee Cape Town had a full town hall meeting yesterday. We had a number of objectives, in order of importance: Keeping individuals safe, so they can keep their families safe, so they can keep their co-workers and team members safe, so that we can keep our customers safe, so that we can keep our town, province, country and in our small way, the world a safer place.”

To this end, tables have been removed to observe WHO (World Health Organisation) social distancing recommendations, all staff (including CEO and founder David Donde) have their temperatures taken when they get to work, and all customers are being asked to self-screen prior to entry.  “Hand sanitiser for clients is mandatory as an entrance requirement (it is available at our door),” says Donde. “Tables and chairs are being thoughtfully sanitised between seating, including ‘invisible’ common touch points.”

Customers are nodding in acknowledgment and happy to see procedures in place, says Donde. “Obviously we aren’t seeing the paranoid out in public. We are seeing lower demand across hospitality. Sales are down about 30% and will drop as foreigners are denied visas in future. We support the SA government’s initiatives. Rather short harsh pain than long excruciating pain.”

Michelle Theron from Avant-Garde at Hazendal Wine Estate. Photo: Hazendal Wine Estate

Beyond the obvious extra surface sanitising and the brigade literally washing their hands constantly, Hazendal Wine Estate in Stellenbosch says it has taken things a step further at its restaurant.

It’s “business unusual” – which looks set to become another catch phrase, along with social distancing and self-isolation. “We have changed our menu somewhat at Avant-Garde – for example, we have removed our very popular beef tartare dish as well as replacing all emulsions (that use raw egg) with other cooking methods,” says chef Michelle Theron. “We felt it is our responsibility, even while we source the best local, ethical suppliers, to be proactive and have chosen to steer away from using raw ingredients during this time as a precautionary measure.”

As a family-owned and run estate with a team of 180 permanent staff Hazendal is committed to supporting its entire team. “Hazendal’s chefs are now creating take-home meals for our staff that can also be frozen to make everyday life easier for our team. Staff have also been equipped with sanitising kits for their homes,” says Theron.

Societi Bistro in Gardens is monitoring reservations to not exceed 80 guests per day, says owner Peter Weetman. “As of Monday, March 23, 2020 we will be closing for lunch as that is predominantly filled by tour operators and no operators are active at the moment.”

Societi Bistro, which uses its airy garden whenever weather allows, is monitoring reservations to not exceed 80 guests per day, and all staff are well educated around hygiene procedures. Photo: Societi Bistro

In general, the mood of staff and guests is cheerful and positive, continues Weetman. “However, the number of guests remains frighteningly low. We have noticed an increase in deliveries.”

Again, you need to remember this was two to three days after The Big Presidential Speech, and before the later 6pm closure announcement.

“At the moment we have created a mini-war room to develop strategies for any scenarios we may face, and generally being proactive about using this downtime productively,” says Weetman. “I read an interesting article which likened this period to being at war – and after each war ends there is a massive celebratory time, and we are focusing our energies on being prepared to be ready for that celebration.”

Wait, what was that? More hope? Yes, you go, guys!

Matt Manning, chef patron at Grub & Vine and The Chef’s Studio in the Cape Town CBD says he is in full support of the President’s guidelines from March 15. “We are a small, family-owned business with 18 staff members in our employ, many of whom are the sole breadwinners in their families. Our priority is retaining all of the staff in our employ. For now, we have taken the business decision to keep trading in line with the info made available to us on Sunday night, with additional safety measures in place. Should new info come to light, we will reassess,” says Manning.

Grub & Vine is a small, family-owned business with 18 staff members, many of whom are the sole breadwinners in their families. Photo: Tegan Smith Photography

“It’s a tightrope small businesses currently have to walk and a difficult decision to make. I am 100% convinced that all those in the service industry are weighing up the risks, and making the decision they feel to be in the best interests of their community, staff and families. I am not sure if there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. We are all just doing as best as we can with the info at hand.” 

Grub & Vine is currently offering a snack menu for those who wish to eat out, but don’t want to spend extended periods of time in public. “We are also promoting our Chef’s Studio & Grub & Vine gift vouchers for future dining experiences, and encouraging pre-bookings,” says Manning. “The silver lining is that innovation is often born in a time of crisis, as we saw with the drought, and I am already seeing some fantastic solutions coming forward from our local industry.” DM

Reluctant to dine out but still want to help the restaurant industry survive? Check out some suggestions here.

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