It was a post of a juicy, oozy cheeseburger on René Redzepi’s personal Instagram account in mid-May that hit home. The chef-owner announced that when Copenhagen restaurants reopen, the much-lauded Noma restaurant will be a no-reservation burger and wine bar. A four-time winner of San Pellegrino Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best list, with significant overheads, a large staff component and long customer waiting list, turning its business model on its head to serve comforting burgers to order.
In lockdown Level 4 South Africa, many fine dining restaurants are staying closed. The reality is that disposable income for dining out is not what it used to be. Splurging on a very indulgent meal – via delivery – during lockdown also seems socially questionable when so many are starving. For the most part, ordering in preferences seem to favour pocket-friendly and convenient.
With that criterion, how are owner-run, moderately priced restaurants faring? Those delivering since 1 May have adjusted business models and operations. Without wine sales, coffees and extras, are they breaking even? TGIFood targeted some popular venues with a reputation for serving quality comfort food that transports easily. Italian pizza, Asian and Middle Eastern favourites … plus a catering company, for good measure.
Pretoria staying above water
Chef-owner Fortunato Mazzone’s solution is making hot food deliveries from casual BICCCS Brooklyn Bridge, in Pretoria. “I was haemorrhaging R15,000 to R18,000 a day since lockdown started, just to cover baseline business expenses,” said Mazzone. “Your day-to-day expenses don’t change just because your restaurants close down. So I maxed out my housing bond, and dipped into my savings. All my staff and suppliers have been paid.
“Now I’m rotating some of my staff through BICCCS. We serve a full Italian bistro menu plus bakery and patisserie there.”
Mazzone ordinarily trades at three restaurants: his Forti Grill & Bar 300-seater fine dining restaurant in Menlyn’s Time Square Casino was “one of the busiest restaurants in South Africa” before lockdown. The complex is closed. PRIVA Gastronomic Lounge, late-night food venue and jazz club In Waterkloof Heights, sold a lot of upmarket plates, spirits and wine labels.
Now 10 employees at BICCCS support salaries at all three restaurants. “I’ve got 100 staff. I’ve moved my head chefs and working rotation, so there are 10 staff on any given shift. My more senior staff have taken a pay cut.”
Mazzone, staff and son Giovanni are doing daily deliveries within an 8km radius. “Somehow we’re making it work so all my expenses will be covered. I’ve made enough this month so I’m not just sucking into my savings any more,” said Mazzone. “You need to remember it’s not just Covid-19. Restaurants have had an appalling year, so when this all ends, 50% of restaurants will have closed forever.”
Mazzone’s full restaurant menu at BICCCS includes hot pizzas, pastas, steaks, fish and oxtail selling from about R70. “On any given day, I have different specials: roast chicken, chips, a large salad and loaf of homemade bread for R250. Or say, a platter of pasta al forno with ragu sauce, salad and a loaf of bread for R400. On average, alcohol would comprise 40% of a restaurant’s takings. In PRIVA and Forti Grill that percentage increases; in BICCS it’s lower.
Forti’s long-time private and business customer base in upmarket Pretoria is helping. “I’m lucky I’ve been supplying my customers’ families with hot meals. The bakery side is doing really well: pastry and ciabatta is a high profit item so we’re very fortunate to be selling a lot of that.”
Hope for Hout Bay
Massimo and Tracy Orione enjoy a loyal following for Italian food and wood-fired pizzas at Massimo’s Pizzeria in Hout Bay. They’ve offered deliveries since the start of the month. “We’ve lost 60% of our restaurant trade from not having people in our 120-seater. Takeaway used to be eight to 10% of our total trade,” said Orione.
Aside from 90% of the usual menu of calamari to Italian staples, Massimo’s is selling affordable homemade frozen meals serving two, such as butternut ravioli, sausage-based salsicci al forno, and tiramisu. “The frozen meals are going very well. And every week we do a special offer. The idea is just to add to the offering because the food deliveries are not enough to pay the bills,” said Orione.
Being closing for lockdown during April meant dipping into savings from the previous season’s trading. Suppliers have been paid, and rental has been negotiated.
High delivery fees paid by restaurants to Mr D and Uber Eats is a bone of contention for many. Massimo’s asks regulars to order and pay directly, so the profits go directly to restaurant staff. “We have five or six of our own drivers, and Tracy and I do some of it. We only use Mr D sometimes,” said Orione. “If I use my own drivers, I give them 10% of the bill instead.”
Massimo’s has measures in place for staff and food hygiene, with no cold salads, or any toppings placed on pizzas after cooking. With 20 full-time staff to support, the Hout Bay and Constantia delivery route is mostly serviced inhouse. “There are not enough hours for everyone, especially the waitrons, used to earning a lot extra with tips.”
Is the model viable? Ordinarily the popular restaurant brings in close to a million rand in May, dropping to about R800,000 during a quiet Cape winter month. “Bummer, just done the numbers for the past two weeks. Income is looking like 25% of our normal trading,” he reported. “The first week of May was a novelty, so everyone ordered.”
Adapting the business model
Graham and Philippa Oldfield (main photo) operate Bao Down in Oranjezicht, a small Asian fusion restaurant near Cape Town’s CBD. Their delivery offering is different: they provide recipes on social media, and supply Asian bao and bottles of homemade sauces. Customers are encouraged to make their own meals at home and store leftover ingredients.
“We started our deliveries during the beginning of May in the City Bowl and Southern Suburbs twice a week. The response was really great, so we added Northern Suburbs and Hout Bay to Constantia, for one day a week,” said Philippa Oldfield.
Aside from Bao buns, sauces include Bao Down kimchi (R82), spicy tamarind dressing (R95) and Korean hot sauce (R89). A lemon and miso slice dessert is an option. A minimum order is R150.
“We didn’t know if this was going to work, but when people create their own Bao Down at home, they get a thrill out of it,” said Oldfield, referring to social media posts they’ve been tagged in. “I know it’s a little more effort than a take out, but we’ve decided that’s not the route we want to go right now. We might do a heat-and-eat at home eventually. But for now we want to keep the brand intact.”
The masked kitchen crew leave their chef jackets and aprons at work for laundering. Only restaurant staff make food deliveries. “It’s harder, but it gives a sense of what we’re about. Customers get quite excited to see one of our staff driving and one of our chefs doing the deliveries,” said Oldfield.
The couple says they’ve had to improve their social media activity as business has all moved online. “For now this model should keep us ticking over and jobs intact, but it’s certainly not what it was when we ran a restaurant,” says Oldfield of the financial output. “We’ve got six families of permanent employees relying on us in the kitchen and scullery.”
The restaurant will add its popular fried prawn toast to menu offerings next week, for shallow-frying at home. Bao Down will likely move to take away hot items at Level 3, once customers may collect.
Delivery in numbers
The Observatory kitchen of Dish Food & Social is geared for large-scale events. With those options on hold, Dish staff are delivering wholesome family-friendly meals to locations all around Cape Town metro – for only R25. That includes Camps Bay, Stellenbosch and Fish Hoek.
“We’ve got 48 full-time staff at Dish Food & Social. My hope is that we get to the point where we’re more affordable for people than grocery shopping,” says owner Andrea Foulkes.
A weekly menu goes out. The meal of the day, with sides, is priced at R250 for four people, or R150 to feed two. Options for kids, or popular fish cakes, brownies and desserts are extras. “The idea is you don’t have to cook. So we’ve tried to offer a sit-down meal the whole family will eat,” says Foulkes.
The concept started a few years ago with the popular Dish Butter Chicken Tuesday Special of chicken, roti, veg and rice, during May to September. Pot pies and vegetarian options were added later.
“With lockdown looming, it made sense to move to something we already knew. It’s fresh food, not frozen,” said Foulkes. “We cook, blast-chill and deliver. The food is sent with heating instructions.”
Staff are divided into two teams. So if somebody gets sick, the team can be swapped out. “I can’t possibly afford a delivery service percentage off that cost. So we all mask up, sanitise and go off on delivery. Our deliveries are made by anybody in our office who drives, from office staff to chefs and bookkeepers.”
Foulkes says demand has grown every week. “We’re probably running at a loss at the moment. We haven’t dropped salaries yet, so we’re trying to get to the point where we can keep everyone employed by ramping up sales. To be viable, we need to do 200 meals a day; we’re somewhere between 100 and 150 meals now.”
Multiple tiers in Joburg
Pablo-Eggs-Go-Bar in Melville is known for long pavement queues and Middle Eastern brunch signatures such as the red shakshuka and hummus with Yemeni flatbread. Wood-fired pizza was served at Dos Manos restaurant in boutique hotel Pablo House nearby.
“Can you survive trading under Level 4 conditions? The answer is no,” said owner Louis Roux. “Every restaurant is dealing with an oversaturated market. You cannot survive on delivery alone.”
Since May 1st, Dos Manos and Pablo-Eggs-Go-Bar have offered deliveries in Melville and surrounds. Roux says it made financial sense to create one central kitchen for both restaurants, since they own the hotel property.
“We didn’t know what we’d make in a week when we started, but the team were all open to giving it a go. We had one good week, and then two shitty weeks. We did like sit-down restaurant numbers in the first week. Then in week two and three, everybody who wasn’t in the takeaway business jumped in.”
Roux’s current level-four business solution is a multi-tiered model. “We’re open three days a week (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), and we have multi-tiered offerings.”
It’s all about increasing the offerings at different price points. “If you have one offering, you’re making money. If you have 10 offerings, you’re making more money. You’ve got on demand and pre order, in one location. So another thing we’re looking at: we live in another part of the city, so can we put our pantry items in a commercial environment in our house and employ another person there? Then you’re looking at multiple tier offerings, all produced from one kitchen, available in various locations.”
Popular tier-one delivery options are in the R100 to R170 range, including the Don Pablo Brunch Pizza with bacon, asparagus and eggs, or a smashed avocado, dukkah, hummus, Yemeni flatbread and a cheeky splash of red sauce.
Tier two is its pre-ordered deliveries: set menus at R1450 for four, which include a main, various tasty sides or sauces, and dessert. Dos Manos Slow roast Saturdays include 700g of beef short ribs, fire-roasted beetroot and hasselback potatoes. Or the Sunday option of roasted pork belly with crackling and gravy, wood-fired balsamic fennel and apple slaw as sides, and apple crumble.
“You’ve just got to have multiple revenue streams. If we don’t do the pre orders, and only do flat breads and pizza takeaways, we’d be lucky to average R9,000 in a three-day weekend. If we sell out the pre orders with 10 orders a day, those 30 orders at an average of R1,000, push our turnover to about R39,000. With your third tier of pantry items at R500 a day, you’re sitting at R1,500 a weekend. Your weekend now sits at R40,000 for three days. So you slowly build it up. You can’t just sit on your arse and wait for somebody to order a pizza.”
Like many restaurants, Roux’s staff are operating and delivering under highly sanitised conditions. With auctioned art from its restaurant and hotel, the Dos Manos and Pablo-Eggs-Go-Bar owners initially raised R130,000 towards paying staff salaries. Said Roux: “We made a decision to split everything equally between our staff, once the bills were paid. At the end of May, that money will go first to our four staff working now (none are on full salaries).
“The fact of the matter is we’re not in the business we want to be in any more. We’re in the business we need to be in for humanitarian reasons. We employ 41 people and their partners and children. Short of telling all our staff to leave us alone, we’re giving this a go for as long as we can.” DM/TGIFood
"Numbers constitute the only universal language." ~ Nathanael West