Durban: Business is falling off, make no bones about it

Durban: Business is falling off, make no bones about it
Chef Graham Neilson and Gina Neilson at 9th Avenue Waterside – cooking with a view. Photo: Wanda Hennig

Dining-in trade has all but evaporated in Durban restaurants, and the harsh reality is that waving hand sanitisers at people is not sufficient to keep businesses afloat.

Durban’s top restaurateurs have surpassed stringent hygiene standards but, as government restrictions tighten, they’re all being upfront about the threat to their livelihoods, and the trickle-down effect this has on their staff. Delivery services like Mr D have been inundated as restaurants are focusing on deliveries, but business owners realise that more innovative measures are needed to keep doors open in the long term. 

Guy Cluver, co-owner of Bellevue Café in Kloof and co-founder of the Italian chain, Lupa, has seen a huge fall-off in business this week.

“We were doing good trade until the weekend but after [President Cyril Ramaphosa’s] address on Sunday 15 March, everything fell off a cliff on Monday morning. We are about 40% down on Lupa nationwide. With Bellevue it is harder to tell as we are in the middle of renovations,” he said.

Bellevue Café has now closed until further notice.

Despite the marked decrease in restaurant trade, all the outlets use the delivery services Uber Eats and Mr D and Guy says there has been a noticeable “upswing” here.

Sanitation protocols at the restaurants include a station at the front door, equipping all staff with sanitiser and wiping down credit card machines after every transaction.

“We don’t have our serving staff in gloves because the germs stay on the gloves. That is window dressing and we don’t want to end up with oceans full of latex gloves,” he said.

Other measures that have been introduced are generous spacing between tables and staff being put on paid annual leave, although Guy admits that if the current situation persists, they may need to consider implementing short time for staff.

“The stance of the government has been brilliant. Let’s panic now rather than ignoring it. China took four months to get through this and I think we’ll be eight to nine months. The impact will be more financial than health.”

Seasoned restaurateurs Marcelle and Sean Roberts have three eateries in their stable and have taken the decision to close S43 indefinitely due to its size. The large restaurant in the Station Drive Precinct incorporates a microbrewery, bar and eating area and hosts a lot of events. They also own Café 1999 and Unity Bar but have taken a different approach there.

Café 1999. Photo: Supplied

“People are scared to come out so, within our area, I am happy to deliver. We are also signing Café 1999 up to Mr D and Unity is signed up already. We’re in big trouble, lunchtimes are dead and dinners are average. We are focusing on deliveries now while it’s quiet.” 

The mandatory hygiene steps have all been undertaken but future options include opening only at dinner time, working with a smaller team and, ultimately, just operating the kitchen and not the restaurant. Marcelle says it will also be easier to manage staff hygiene and health without undertaking that of diners as well.  

“We are trying to be innovative and I am happy to cater dinner parties for six to eight people. The focus for us, instead of having people in the restaurants, is to get food out. Us foodie people have an obligation to feed people … there are people out there who don’t cook at home.”

Katmandu in Ballito has already cut back on floor and kitchen staff as trade has dropped off, and there has been a spike in takeaway orders as people make use of a call and collect service. 

Owners of 9th Avenue Waterside at Durban’s yacht mole, Gina and Graham Neilson, are currently on leave and, after Sunday’s presidential announcement, decided to close the restaurant until 24 March.

“We were limiting numbers anyway because we’re not there, but there was work that needed to be done at the restaurant so it seemed like a good time to close. It was quite fortuitous,” said Gina.

“I’m hoping restaurants who were flippant about hygiene will now be more responsible. We don’t need to change much except provide hand sanitisers for guests.”

They have no concerns regarding their hygiene, but Gina is worried about the immediate future of the industry. 

“Everyone we’ve spoken to is very concerned. It’s been a difficult year for restaurants anyway, especially with load shedding and the state of the economy. Many restaurants have been living hand to mouth; this will end them.

“We have had weddings cancelled and we now need to refund people. It would be better if the government bans restaurant operations so we can at least claim on our business interruption (insurance),” she said.

When 9th Avenue reopens next week, it will be to limited diners and the Neilsons are considering opening seven days a week – instead of six – to make up the difference in numbers.

“The only positive thing for me is that my bone broth sales have skyrocketed,” said Gina of her other business, Dr Broth. “It’s tripled my sales overnight as chicken soup is amazing for immune boosting. If it becomes dire, we will start making bone broth immune-boosting meals for people for home.” 

The new Chambers Club in the city’s CBD remains open and has taken Covid-19 hygiene practices very seriously.

Chambers Club. Photo: Supplied

“There is a sense of unity in that the whole world is in the same situation,” said general manager, Sunet Pringle. “Upon entry, we are doing sanitation checks on staff – they have to wash their hands for 20 seconds and then sanitise, and this is being supervised by us. The staff are all very willing.

“We are deep-cleaning everything every hour, seating people further away from each other and practising social distancing, so we are giving staff leave to be with their families,” she said.

Other procedures include soaking cutlery after washing, offering sanitiser to guests between courses, disinfecting lifts and suggesting people make payments via the Zapper app instead of using cash or card. DM


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