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Tashas’ Natasha Sideris on reopening restaurants, lessons from Dubai

Tashas’ Natasha Sideris on reopening restaurants, lessons from Dubai
Natasha Sideris. (Photo: supplied)

‘All we are saying, is give us a chance.’ It sounds like a line from the anti-war song sung in 1969 by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but actually it’s Natasha Sideris, founder of Tashas chain of restaurants, who is no less passionate about her cause.

While a large swathe of South African society prepares to move to Lockdown Level 3 on Monday 1 June, including religious groupings of no more than 50 people, restaurants will have to cool their heels a while longer.

Under the government’s current planning, restaurants will be able to reopen when the country moves to Level 1, which is unlikely to be before the end of the year.

If this is the case, says Sideris, then the industry, which numbers 13,000 sit-down restaurants, employs 500,000 people directly and supports tens of thousands of small farmers and other suppliers and service providers, will halve in size.

“You have to understand, restaurants in South Africa were already living hand to mouth before the lockdown. They have no savings, no cash balances on their books – it is impossible to save when you are earning a margin of 7% to 8%.”

While restaurants are currently able to deliver takeaways to customers, most sit-downs have not opened up for this service, and that includes all 17 Tashas eateries.

“My franchisees are desperate to reopen, but when we sit together and look at the costs, it is not worth it,” she says. Sit-down restaurants operate with very high costs, narrow margins and high debt levels and, most importantly, rely on a minimum turnover to service these costs and debt.

Sideris owns 49% of Tashas, with the JSE-listed Famous Brands owning the balance. Of the 17 restaurants in the chain, she owns three, with the others owned by franchisees. The reason for retaining three, she says is because “it is important that I understand a franchisee’s pain”.

Not one who is prone to sitting around, Sideris is one of the drivers behind the Restaurant Collective, an association of sit-down restaurants that is lobbying the government to be allowed to open up on Level 3. Others who have lent their voices to the collective include Desmond Mabuza of Signature restaurant and Grace Harding, CEO of Ocean Basket.

“All we are saying is give us a chance; we understand our business, we know how to open safely and responsibly, let us take responsibility for this,” says Sideris.

Restaurants do not have to be vectors for transmission if you observe the guidelines – regular sanitising, maintaining a distance between diners, and the wearing of masks by staff and patrons (though the diner can remove their mask once seated).

“We are sharing all of this information with others in the collective; some don’t know what to do and we are making it easier,” she says.

Sideris already has some experience of opening restaurants under lockdown conditions – and of negotiations with government officials.

She has seven establishments in Dubai – the Galaxy Bar (which will remain closed for now), four Tashas cafes and two restaurants – Avli, a Greek restaurant and The Flamingo Room, a fine dining restaurant.

The cafes are in the process of reopening, one at a time, having been closed since 24 March. 

“We are learning valuable lessons which we can share with South Africa because we are ahead of you. In fact, we can take videos and show you how we are doing it.”

She was amazed at the response from local customers in Dubai on the first day of opening – just after Eid. 

“I had a skeleton staff on, but we ran a queue all day.”

Customers, she adds, were very respectful of the rules. 

“But they want the old normal, not the new normal. They want comfort food and they want the place they frequented to feel the same – so don’t move tables out to create a mausoleum. Leave the tables where they are, but don’t set each one.”

“It is fine to charge 30% on a R100 bill, but it is not as reasonable to charge 30% on a R1,000 bill. If they won’t listen we will cut them out, as we have done in Dubai where we cut Deliveroo out.”

Make people feel safe. “We have printed notices – which can be downloaded off the Restaurant Collective – which explain the measures we have taken.”

The cost of reopening is not to be discounted. 

“Stocking up, sanitising the restaurant, buying protective gear, it will cost R20,000 to R30,000 just to get started. And then you have your staff who haven’t worked in weeks, they may be rusty too.”

Her advice is to open with a pared-down menu. 

“A big menu requires a bigger cash outlay, rather keep it simple.”

Restaurants in Dubai charge a higher premium for their meals, making it easier for restaurants to make a profit. Restaurants there also got together to lobby the government of Dubai for concessions during the lockdown.

“We were able to negotiate lower rates, delays on VAT payments, waivers on visa renewals and rental relief.”

In South Africa, the Restaurant Collective is attempting to lobby government, through tourism bodies, to be able to open earlier.

To Sideris the fact that religious organisations have been granted a concession is positive.

For us, it’s a good sign that government is listening to people’s needs. It’s a tough balance – to be both safe from the virus and have the ability to start to ‘live’ again. Sit-down restaurants will have safe congregating protocols as well. It’s all people congregating, whether eating or praying together safely, with distance.”

In the meantime, The Collective is working on a model to make takeaways viable. This includes negotiating with landlords and others.

“We are in this together, let’s find common solutions to common problems.”

But where solutions can’t be found, she is not opposed to forging her own path.

For instance, the costs charged by menu aggregators and delivery agents, like Uber Eats and Mr D Foods, are high – up to 30% of the price of the meal. 

“It is fine to charge 30% on a R100 bill, but it is not as reasonable to charge 30% on a R1,000 bill. If they won’t listen we will cut them out, as we have done in Dubai where we cut Deliveroo out.”

It is this type of knowledge and experience that she is determined to share with all of South Africa’s 13,000 sit-down restaurants. BM/DM

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