We CAN return to restaurants – but do we WANT to?
It’s been the most exciting week since, oh, about mid-March, as many businesses got the go-ahead to reopen under the easing of Level 3 lockdown restrictions … but restaurants face deal-breaking challenges, and are diners sure they’ll be safe?
It seems like forever ago that President Cyril Ramaphosa announced to his fellow South Africans that certain businesses would be allowed to reopen during Level 3, part 2. It was probably only about two weeks ago; time has become meaningless (except when it feels like it’s standing still). The nitty gritty for some of these was gazetted fairly quickly, but restaurants were left hanging as the new rules and regulations for sit-down patrons were thrashed out.
When they were finally made public, it wasn’t exactly what everyone hoped to hear. It never is.
On the upside, the number of diners is not restricted – but social distancing will be enforced. This will affect how many tables in a restaurant (or outdoors) may be occupied, and in every instance this will slash the number of customers in any given service period. There’s a lengthy list of health, safety and hygiene protocols for staff, suppliers, and customers, which are welcomed. The biggest downside, however, is that no alcohol may be consumed on restaurant premises. It’s a condition that has split reactions not very neatly down the middle, and generated some very spirited discussion.
We’ve been through a phase of delivery and collections, the likes of which never existed before (since the beginning of June, 2020), as chefs thought outside the box to put food inside a box to be sent to our doors. Ready-to-eat or frozen, almost-complete to be finished at home; pantry items, from the basics like butter to in-house specialities; fine dining to fast food – it was all available at the click of a mouse, and credit card numbers were learned off by heart. It’s been an exciting time in the food world, and I’ve been enjoying it. Yes, I know misery should be the pandemic default, and for millions it truly is, but it’s heartening to see how many restaurants and suppliers have creatively risen to the challenges they are (still) facing. Also, it’s pretty flipping cool to have all these delicious goodies brought to your home.
In an act of apparent lunacy, in June, restaurants in possession of liquor licences for on-site consumption effectively had those converted to off-sales: they could sell all the booze they wanted, Mondays to Thursdays between 9am and 5pm, just like a bottle store. They could deliver it. They could offer it for collection. They could set up wine shops inside their restaurants with abandon. Now, in July, they can open their doors for sit-down dining, but they cannot open a bottle of wine at those tables. It’s a condition that has baffled everyone, and one which will determine whether restaurants choose to trade or to remain closed.
Practically, it’s a financial decision. The legality of the overriding of the Liquor Act is also called into question, as is the idea that maybe we are unable to enjoy a meal without a glass of wine (and is that so wrong?). And of course, are we all ready to rush out, masks properly worn, into public gathering places? (Daily Maverick’s Food Editor certainly isn’t.)
And nor am I, as close as the industry is to my heart. I’ll support them the way I have been doing so far, by ordering deliveries – which I can dish up with a splash of Shiraz. I want my steak with a nice red, whether it’s at home or at a restaurant. It’s important to me that these keep coming. So I asked a bunch of places that have been doing deliveries what their plans are now, bearing in mind that in this current situation, every little bit counts. Some restaurant customers voiced their opinions as well.
“I think the corona cases are rising. ICU is overwhelmed. I’m in support of no alcohol served in restaurants. People can drink at home. There’s an array of non-alcoholic beverages in restaurants,” said Dawn Mambalu. “Once people are tipsy there’s a big chance that social distancing will not be observed etc, and I don’t think we should be taking chances.”
Arran Laird, who has been in the restaurant industry for nearly two decades, responded that if the concern is that diners will get inebriated and then break the rules or take risks, he can offer the advice and experience of managing restaurants for 18 years.
“If a diner gets inebriated they are cut off immediately and usually asked to leave, in an Uber or the like. With the new restrictions in place NO manager will let a guest get to this stage.
“The new safety precautions in place are incredibly strict and the environment is so safe that even if a guest gets drunk and breaks the rules, the risk of contamination is negligible.
“Why not impose a maximum limit to the number of drinks allowed? Perhaps similar to the legal limits as more diners will likely be driving to avoid taking rides. But the point of the matter is that as a diner I should have the right to choose.”
Advocate Theo Nel said the no-alcohol regulation is “irrational” and the prohibition cannot prevent the spread of the virus one iota. “Government does not even attempt to argue that it does – NO explanation for the reasoning behind this prohibition is given. The only subtext reason is ‘Because I said so’.
“Therefore it is an unlawful prohibition and will be set aside by a court when challenged.” The long and short of it, said Nel, is that the government acted unlawfully by converting on-premises liquor licences overnight to be magically changed into off-sales liquor licences.
Susan Hayden, an ardent supporter of restaurants, said she’s not a drinker, really, but a huge part of the restaurant experience for her is kicking back with a glass of wine and enjoying the fact that for once she is not cooking. “It’s such an intrinsic part of the experience that I’m not sure I’ll be visiting restaurants till I can have the ‘whole deal’. When I’m out I choose things I don’t cook, myself – different foods, a little richer/more decadent as it’s a treat to eat out. Without wine to complement the flavours… it just doesn’t work for me. I really sympathise with restaurant owners and I’m distressed by the illogicality of this ‘law’ which I’m sure illegal and unconstitutional. It’s quite outrageous they can get away with this.”
Robert McCann from Hog & Rose in Woodstock said it’s been an uphill battle all the way so far. “The decision not to allow on-site consumption has certainly thrown a spanner in the works. We do still intend to reopen for sit-down regardless but I feel we would need to reinvent ourselves very drastically first. We have some good ideas for our new direction but this will take time and money, time we have a lot of right now, money not so much… We’re also quite nervous to spend precious money right now to change what we do, when the decision may be reversed at any moment. I think that’s been one of the most frustrating things so far – the lack of timely informative updates.”
McCann believes there are plenty of people who aren’t ready to visit restaurants just yet. “But at the same time, I have seen and spoken to many people who just can’t wait to dine out again. There will, of course, be many necessary regulations that will have to be adhered to, to ensure the safety of all involved.”
Kerry Kilpin, executive chef at Steenberg where she heads two restaurants – Bistro 1682 and Tryn – said their objective for doing deliveries was to survive as a brand and to keep the restaurants alive in the minds of customers. “It wasn’t about surviving financially but more to assist with contributing to running overheads that continue even though we were not operating. Deliveries and collections are not really viable.”
Being based on a wine farm in the Constantia wine valley, visitors can happily buy Steenberg wine by the caseload, as well as all sorts of yumminess for takeaway. I myself will be collecting half a dozen of the famous honey brioches this very day. “We will be opening Tryn for sit-down during the daytime only. This will be a reduced menu and a collaboration between Bistro 1682 and Tryn,” said Kilpin. “The food is simple yet tasty and very pocket-conscious. Our offering will be a lot more relaxed and family orientated. I think, initially, we will probably create an interim offering which would be a combination of both sit-down and delivery items.”
As much as restaurants themselves are divided as to whether they’ll open at this time or not, the public will likely be in two camps: those who are eating out right now, and those who are opting to remain at home. There are so many concerns to take into consideration.
“I think initially there will be a demand as people are bored and desperate to get out of their houses but I think this will be very short lived,” opined Kilpin. “We still have a long road. People will go back to home dining and home entertaining, it’s safer and cost effective. People are feeling cash strapped too, and this will have a huge impact on business.”
Takeaways have been available from two of Liam Tomlin’s restaurants: Beau Constantia and Maison in Franschhoek. “We did this as they are both on wine farms, so we can include wine sales. Obviously it’s nothing compared to our normal trade and revenue but it is nice to see some of our staff back at work, to see our regular guests again, and to see some life again in these beautiful spaces,” he said.
After the regulations were announced, Tomlin said they won’t be reopening until they can serve alcohol without restrictions. “It’s a bit like going to the theatre but not being allowed to see the first or last 15 minutes of the performance. I just hope they change these rules soon.
“Our restaurants are not designed as takeout shops nor am I interested in running a delivery service. Currently we can offer a takeout service as it is the only way to generate revenue. We can’t be both, so as soon as we can we will go back to doing what we do best – giving a full restaurant experience. We will continue with the Chefs Warehouse product range we have created during lockdown and will look at offering takeout from Thali, our Indian restaurant that lends itself to that service,” said Tomlin.
Mari Vigar from Upper Bloem in Green Point said she started the delivery service UBtoGO for the staff’s survival. “Not being able to seat and serve guests within our usual margins and business projections, which include the sale of alcohol, is unfortunately in no way sustainable. Opening for deliveries has given us the opportunity to pay some of our people and suppliers, to get the machine rolling again, to keep morale going, and to keep our chefs sane.
“We are ready and prepared to welcome guests – provided we are able to safely offer the full experience, which unfortunately is still not possible. We have been discussing opening within the amended regulations to Level 3, but this is just not viable for us.
“Our restaurant is small and our UBtoGO production line currently takes up a third of the shop – then to add in the 1.5m social distancing rules and non-sale or on-site consumption of alcohol (which is usually 40% of my turnover) makes this not viable at all.
“We would be worse off if we tried opening under these circumstances. We are rather going to extend the trading hours for UBtoGO so we can start bringing in more staff on a rotational basis and keep that going until we can seat guests and sell alcohol – which we anticipate Level 2 to be.”
When that happens, Vigar said she intends to keep UBtoGO running. “We have had such a wonderful response and love being able to take our food all over Cape Town and even Hermanus! UBtoGO is a very different offering from the Upper Bloem Restaurant experience and if it continues to do well, then we will continue to run it alongside our restaurant as an additional revenue stream to try and come back from the impact of lockdown.”
With all of this happening in the middle of winter – out of the now-hypothetical tourist season, and when Capetonians are notorious for refusing to budge to go outside in the rain – it makes it even more difficult to drum up business.
“Winter is historically very quiet in Cape Town, and will now be even quieter. We are fortunate that lockdown happened as peak season was coming to an end – if not, I believe we would have seen far more businesses close,” said Matt Manning, chef patron of Grub & Vine and Chef’s Studio in the City Bowl. “The fact most of us have had to expand our offering to accommodate the lockdown restrictions may actually be a very good thing for us as we enter our winter season, as we now have offerings and processes in place that will comfortably allow for at-home dining.
“When we were allowed to open for collection/delivery at Level 3, we decided to launch Virtual Dining – an interactive, at-home five-course fining dining experience that combines the style of cuisine we serve at Grub & Vine with the interactive fun of the Chef’s Studio.
“Three of the courses are plated, while the interactive element is brought in the form of two of the courses, which diners are required to make following a video and set of instructions we share with them. This follows the narrative of our business model, with Chef’s Studio being our interactive cooking events space.”
As for opening again this month – absolutely yes, said Manning. “I believe restaurants are already better equipped than most other businesses to adhere to the stringent new health and safety protocols. As a business, hygiene and sanitation is already paramount – people are, in general, far safer visiting a restaurant than going to a grocery store or working in a large office.”
The Virtual Dining experience will continue in conjunction with sitdown trade.
“It seems that no matter what conditions change, social distancing is here to stay for a while,” said Russell Shapiro, owner of Regent Burger Bar in Sea Point. “With tables being spaced 1.5m apart and waiters shouting at their customers from 1m away, my little 50-seater will be a maximum of 12 seats.
“We shall continue doing takeaways for collection and our own ‘smart deliveries’. We shall, however, allow people to sit and eat out of takeaway boxes and drink out of cans if they are practising the usual safety protocol (sanitising, masks and social distancing). Ordering and payment is available online for those who want to be extra cautious.”
It hasn’t been easy, but in all honestly it’s a new type of business and getting better every day, said Shapiro.
“Yes we are opening… little is better than nothing… even if it means that in a 200m2 restaurant we can only have nine tables,” said Massimo Orione, owner of Massimo’s in Hout Bay. “We will probably have 33% of normal seats and without alcohol sales income will be even lower than that. The atmosphere won’t be the same as a full, noisy restaurant. We might have to enforce set seating times so that we can serve more clients.
“But it’s a step forward and we have already received many requests for bookings. Will have to see how the atmosphere will be, with less people and everyone wearing a mask and no alcohol drinks. Some people might try it once and realise it is still better to get a take away and enjoy it at home with your own wine.”
Deliveries and takeaways will still be available, and a line of frozen pizzas which will be sold in supermarkets and delis, and Massimo’s spiriti Famosi liqueur, are in the pipeline. “We are waiting for a licence to produce at home,” said Orione.
Not having a liquor licence in the first place takes the agonising out of the equation. Quince is a delightful coffee shop and deli in the grounds of a nursery in Diep River, which has been trading with takeaways – and had only been open for three months prior to that. “The pre-prepared frozen meals assisted us in getting through the lockdown period. Prior to lockdown we had built up an extraordinary customer base that remained loyal and kept ordering from us,” said owner Graham Isaacson.
“Every Saturday morning we offered sourdough breads and ciabatta, cheeses, quiches, jams and did very well. All in all, we’ve managed to pay the rent and, as importantly, we were able to have staff back earning income.
“We are getting ready to open with all the protocols in place and with a fresh new menu. Our customers are crying to get back to our relaxing and beautiful environment.”
Plus, you can buy some plants while you’re there.
“We have been doing a weekly delivered dinner and a small order and collect menu for The Vine Bistro, a delivered Sunday Lunch at Home for the Kraal Restaurant, and an order and collect meal for Joostenberg Bistro,” said Garth Bedford, chef de cuisine at the Stellenbosch venue. “We had to adapt delivery days to allow us to sell and deliver wine too. Delivered meals have a very small impact on profit margins and covering overheads as packaging and doing individual deliveries are very costly and time consuming, but have been invaluable in keeping in touch with our clients and allowing a few more staff to return to our kitchens. We are very fortunate that since day one, Joostenberg Deli has been open and we have had a small kitchen team producing, packaging and baking every day of the week.
“We would definitely implement sit-down at Joostenberg Bistro as soon as possible. Our takeaway counter has proven popular and we can see that there is a demand for tables to return. We will open the Stellies Taproom for picnics over weekends when more of the public are out and about looking for somewhere safe and spacious to eat. Our vast gardens are ideal for social distancing and the counter service offered at the taproom/picnic area is ideal for this scenario.
“The Kraal is usually fairly quiet in winter, and if we are not allowed to sell wine, we may not open until summer as the restaurant is situated at Joostenberg Wine Estate adjoining the cellar. At the Vine Bistro we will open with limitations on days that wine sales are permitted.”
There is no denying that it will be a difficult winter, and with a poor economy and a hesitant tourism industry, we will all be in for a hard summer season, said Bedford. “Restaurants will need to innovate and improvise as guests’ habits change.”
Being a destination with an “experience facility”, deliveries have been slower than anticipated but also better than nothing, said Pia Watermeyer, owner of Kunjani wine estate in Stellenbosch. “We never intended to cover any overheads, but to make enough money to cover the food costs and provide much needed cash to pay our staff salaries and to cover some of the costs of making up food parcels for all our staff.”
Kunjani would reopen as soon as permitted, added Watermeyer.
“Many people are not ready to visit restaurants yet, however, and we would like to be able to bring the Kunjani experience to them rather than them missing out on our food, especially for our loyal and regular patrons, so deliveries will continue.
“I think it is great for people who maybe don’t enjoy cooking, or don’t have the time, and who can afford it. It is a way to recreate the experience of your favourite restaurants and dishes at home. On the downside, depending how the restaurant is presenting its meals, you might still have to do a bit of prep or reheating yourself, and there are still the dreaded dishes afterwards.
“Perhaps deliveries will remain a viable option if people don’t want to go out due to the weather. Generally, people go out less in winter and most facilities are quieter; 2020 winter will certainly be the worst one in the history of our industry. I believe many places will open again but I also fear some will be forced to close their doors permanently during this time.”
Vadas Smokehouse & Bakery at Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch makes simply the best gluten-free, sugar-free (and therefore low-ish carb) chocolate brownie tart in my known universe. And it can be frozen. I had one of these delivered “the other day” (the only measurement of time left) so I know of what I speak. “We have been able to focus on our bakery goods and have been making frozen pies for home,” said owner PJ Vada. “We have also been doing take away pizzas which are doing really well.
“We will open for sit-down as some business is better than nothing, and it’s good for the morale of our regulars and staff.”
It won’t be a popular opinion with everyone but diner Sylvie Hurford puts it succinctly: “The very depressing nature of sitting in a half empty restaurant being attended to by a masked waitperson with the underlying and constant low level fear is enough to warrant, at least, a glass of wine. The government’s attempt to reopen the economy is once again subverted by stupid and spurious sub clauses.”
Fun fact: Susan Hayden, Sylvie Hurford, our esteemed TGIF editor Tony Jackman, and I have all had dishes named after us at Societi Bistro. Hashtag brag. DM/TGIFood
The gazetted regulations for restaurants as of June 29, 2020, can be read here.