CORONAVIRUS: MEALS TO GO

Restaurant trade reeling as food deliveries ruled out

By Bianca Coleman 25 March 2020

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA- MARCH24: A general view of a Steers. (Photo By Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)

Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane signed off on a directive to the restaurant industry on Tuesday, 24 March, in light of the Covid-19 lockdown, effectively shutting the industry down completely for three weeks. It was made clear that this includes all food delivery services, which many restaurateurs had hoped would be a lifeline that would keep them in business.

The statement on Tuesday by Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane came as a crushing blow to the beleaguered restaurant industry, already reeling from the announcements a week ago of reduced trading hours and the ban on selling alcohol outside of certain hours.

Minister Kubayi-Ngubane’s statement reads: “In compliance with the nationwide lockdown, it should be noted that ALL restaurants, cafes, bars, and coffee shops will be required to comply with the nationwide lockdown for 21 days.

“Such service providers [who] have NOT been included on the list of what has been deemed essential services during the lockdown will NOT be permitted to operate and will thus need to be closed for the duration.

“In addition, in compliance with the nationwide lockdown, ALL food delivery services will also need to be suspended for 21 days with effect from midnight, Thursday, March 26, 2020 until midnight Thursday, April 16, 2020.”

Since President Cyril Ramaphosa first addressed the nation on Sunday, 15 March, restaurants had begun to implement even stricter hygiene and safety measures than normal to ensure the health of their customers as well as staff. Among the steps taken was spacing tables wider apart to observe the recommended social distancing protocols, thus decreasing the number of patrons who could be accommodated; the immediate knock-on effect of this was lower turnover. In addition to these challenges, the public had begun taking self-isolation to heart, and many restaurants were operating at a fraction of their normal capacity.

Restaurateurs rallied and began adapting their businesses to focus on deliveries and takeaways. It was, they said, the only way they could hope to survive the pandemic.

“Carnage” is the word used by Brett Susan, director at Integrated Labour Solutions and consultant to the hospitality industry.

“We had been consulting many of the hotels and restaurants in the Western Cape, and during the course of last week we were advising our clients to go to a short-term arrangement in an effort to mitigate the effect of the reduced trading hours, and because there was going to be a lockdown of foreign tourists.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech was an “absolute game-changer”, said Susan. “It forced us to, in effect, put in a unilateral move to lay employees off over a period of time, which is a unique situation in our law; it simply does not cater for such situations.

“We’ve had to scramble to get UIF forms out to employees. The great fear at the moment is that the Department of Labour does not have the resources to effectively process all these claims.

“The problem is not so much this month; the problem will be next month, or the month thereafter, when the coffers are simply going to run dry.

“Most of the companies have gone to great lengths to assist their staff at great sacrifices to the employers themselves – personal sacrifices – to make sure their staff receive income. The unfortunate conclusion of this is that it’s carnage for the industry, and especially going into winter, which is normally when we expect a downturn in trade.

“This carnage will continue, I expect, well into the latter part of the year. One hopes that employers can survive this.”

Randolf Jorberg, founder of Beerhouse, says he doesn’t think we need to doubt the fact that there won’t be delivery during the lockdown. “I fear everyone in government is too busy with other aspects of life right now to review this decision,” he said.

Jorberg created a WhatsApp group this week, specifically for those in hospitality.

“To be honest, I was planning to make Beerhouse the shining example of a story of resilience in this unprecedented crisis. I wanted to pivot our liquor-heavy brand to a delivery-first brand launching Pizzahouse and Burgerhouse, but this shutdown of delivery really caught me by surprise,” said Jorberg.

“I am sad. Last night I heard a decisive president announce a lockdown and felt in good hands. I woke up planning to tell you [colleagues] how we will change and continue business under the lockdown, keeping you employed, but around 11am I read the unbelievable news in our Hospitality Leadership crisis group: Delivery will not be exempt!”

Jorberg said he expected this to backfire significantly and hopes for relaxed terms after the first days of lockdown, allowing responsible delivery trade.

“I told my team to be ready to possibly return to work before the end of the lockdown, but obviously not guaranteeing anything.

Jorberg said he hopes the government will change this detail of their otherwise solid crisis plan and allow food delivery, “once they understand that this doesn’t only affect restaurant customers, but equally old-age homes, hospitals and other people that are not able to cook for themselves or like a good, fresh meal”.

The severity of the crisis was exacerbated for Jorberg when he heard friend and fellow business owner Kim Whitaker share in a WhatsApp group of fellow entrepreneurs that she was Coronavirus case #41.

“Last Tuesday I hosted a spontaneous video conference for restaurant owners, receiving good response and afterwards it was clear that we needed a more constant channel of communication,” he said.

Restaurant Association South Africa CEO Wendy Alberts has also been active in the group chat, working to bring clarity to its members.

“There is no exception to any alternative circumstances or any loopholes whatsoever,” she said of the minister’s statement.

“There will be NO exceptions made for any type of food service to continue to trade.

“I would furthermore like to take this opportunity to encourage our restaurateurs to act responsibly and to help the country slow the curve.

“We understand the industry’s challenges, concerns and the financial impact this has brought into all our businesses. While economic losses for restaurants, entrepreneurs and employees would be severe at this time, the opportunity cost of being able to resume trade in 21 days with a hopefully muted Covid-19 threat is worth it.

“Our industry respects President Ramaphosa’s leadership and we will continue to support the country’s leadership as they guide us through these very uncertain times,” she said.

“Let’s trust that this process will allow us to get back to trading as normal as soon as possible and we can look forward to a positive reopening of the restaurant industry in the near future.”

There does, however, seem to be one small loophole: Ingredient delivery service UCook announced on Instagram that it will be continuing deliveries to customers during the lockdown, but only to certain areas.

“Following the President’s announcement last night, we have an important update for you regarding your delivery: UCook can operate as a food provider,” said its statement on Tuesday.

“Our meal kits form part of essential food services, so we will continue to operate during this period. Local couriers assisting in food delivery have also been deemed essential, so deliveries will continue as normal on your choice of delivery day.

“Health and safety of our customers, couriers and staff come first. Our couriers have adopted a no-contact delivery approach. You can also add special instructions for your courier, such as ‘leave box at my front door’.

“Because some of our national deliveries rely on broader transport and logistics, we may not be able to deliver to your location because of the lock-down.”

Mike Said (mikesaidwhat.co.za), who has been writing about the industry for years, poses the question, “Will things go back to normal?”

His suggestion is to think long and hard about the business restaurateurs want to return to and about the industry they want to return to, “for it is going to shape the next few years of your life and possibly beyond.

“Some will walk away, some sadly may have no choice, but many will go back and rebuild the pieces and start again,” he says.

Vaughan Cragg, owner of GrubsUp, a small takeaway in Atlantis, says the lockdown will force him to begin over again, as he has no savings.

“Every cent goes back into the business. All we want is to be able to cook, deliver to whomever, and people can pay online,” he says.

“If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then surely this is the time to stop, assess and plan so that you can break that cycle,” said Said.

With regards to the existing restaurant delivery platform UberEats, Samantha Fuller, head of communications at Uber Sub Saharan Africa, said on Tuesday night:

“The health and safety of our community comes first, and we will do our best to support drivers, delivery people and restaurants during these unprecedented times.

“We are working as a business to better understand the measures announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 23 March 2020 regarding transport and food delivery and will announce our actions to this in due course.”

Mr D Food had yet to respond to a request for comment.

Any tourism and hospitality official updates from the government can be found here and any small business-related (not specifically tourism and hospitality but still applicable) updates, regarding finance, budgets etc are here. DM

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