RESTAURANTS IN CRISIS
Battered, bruised, dry, and ready to fight
The banning, again, of alcohol – all of it – this week knocked an already-reeling hospitality industry for six, and has brought an outpouring of grief and heartache as hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs, and many restaurants face permanent closure, and bankruptcy. And that’s before we factor in the export losses for our wine farms.
For several days now, perhaps a little more than a week, I’ve had an ear worm: that hideous repetitive song from the late 1990s, Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. The title alone should be enough to infect you as well, but after waking up with it every morning, its lyrics suddenly became appropriate last Sunday night, 12 July 2020, when President Cyril Ramaphosa once again made announcements that cut the legs out from under the hospitality and restaurant industries.
I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down (four times!)
He drinks a Whiskey drink, he drinks a Vodka drink
He drinks a Lager drink, he drinks a Cider drink
He sings the songs that remind him of the good times
He sings the songs that remind him of the best times
And so on, and so on. You’re welcome.
It’s no joking matter, however. The immediate ban on the sale, dispensing and transport of alcohol dealt a heavy blow to restaurants, which had been allowed to use their liquor licences to sell off-consumption booze since the beginning of June. It was a crumb after weeks of being permitted to do only delivery meals during Level 4 of lockdown. This was relaxed slightly at the beginning of Level 3; alcohol could be sold for delivery or collection, along with food.
Towards the end of June, sit-down dining was introduced – with appropriate distancing, but with no alcohol to be consumed on-site. Since lockdown began on 27 March 2020, restaurateurs have been fighting tooth and nail to keep their businesses going, and to support their staff members and their families. Many have failed, through no fault of their own. There simply wasn’t the money. UIF and TERS were supposed to help, but any restaurant owner will tell you this has rarely come to acceptable fruition.
The Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA) has been working tirelessly to bring relief to the beleaguered industry, exploring every legal avenue to try get the no-alcohol-with-meals ruling amended or overturned, as was advocate Theo Nel, who embarked on a similar campaign in his personal capacity. “Our court case – which has been postponed till August 11 – is not a fight for selling alcohol; it is a fight to keep thousands of restaurants from closing down and from shedding hundreds and thousands of jobs, irretrievably. Allowing restaurants to serve alcohol with meals is only the means to get to the goal,” said Nel.
And then Cyril said no.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, a 9pm curfew was instated with immediate effect as well. For a few minutes, people dared to breathe. It has to be gazetted, they said. They were not wrong. But the government had already done that before announcing its fait accompli.
Combined with the news that taxis can run at 100% capacity as long as the windows are open and passengers are wearing masks, and the looming spectre of load shedding for the foreseeable future, it was understandable that an atmosphere of despair, anger, and grief descended.
The days that followed saw a social media explosion of the hashtag “jobssavelives” and chefs, restaurant owners and staff posted photographs of themselves holding signs recording the number of jobs lost at their establishments. It’s been chilling, and it’s going to stay that way.
Some places which had been fighting the good fight gave up completely – and who can blame them? It’s ruinous for everyone involved, from wine farms and merchants which have suddenly had to withhold exports and deliveries (that have been paid for), to the bottle store cashier who had a job when they went home last Thursday, which wasn’t there on Monday.
Spoiler alert: the word “devastating” is repeated many times in this story.
Cheyne Morrisby has always been, shall we say, outspoken on Facebook. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind. But now there’s a clear and different sentiment, a deep, heartfelt sadness. He’s closed one of his restaurants, Fire Monkey, permanently; Cheyne’s, Lucky Bao and Ding Dong remain open… for now.
“I feel that the blanket ban on sales and distribution of alcohol is there to protect the communities but it could have been done in a more structured manner, maybe allowing licensed premises to strictly control the amount served. Something is better than nothing,” said Morrisby.
“It’s made us do a U-turn back to delivery and takeout. We staffed up for sit-down which gave hope to those to be back at work. We now have to down-staff to cope with the overheads during this phase.
“I am using the coming weeks to analyse the market and how customers are reacting to the ban and time restrictions. I will then make a decision on how we move forward. I did unfortunately close Fire Monkey due to little support through the delivery/takeout phase, then, with the ban coming in, the bookings we had all cancelled. The market is very unstable and to put even more restrictions on customers will make them think twice about making a booking.”
Morrisby believes the 9pm curfew is in place to protect communities and the spread of the virus, and it’s something restaurants will have to accept. “I will encourage our customers to dine at an earlier time. I will also look at strengthening our delivery and takeout offering. As they say, ‘diamonds are made under pressure’.”
These new challenges will separate the weak from the strong, said Morrisby. “It’s going to test every part of the hospitality industry. There will be huge job losses. My heart breaks for landlords as they are always forgotten and often blamed, but from my experience, my landlords have been incredible. Moving forward it’s going to take a sharp knife and big heart to get through this.”
The booze ban took Kerry Kilpin, executive chef for Tryn and Bistro 1682 at Steenberg, by surprise. “I am absolutely shocked and saddened for all the people in this country who are working for alcohol-related jobs. I was not expecting it at all,” she said. “Right now there is no real change to what we were doing from July 1. The staff that were working will still continue to work. However, the longer the ban is in place the harder it is to recover from. We are currently working with 20% of our staff which is devastating for all those not working. RASA was working so hard on having the ban lifted for restaurant on-consumption and now this will put everything even further back and even tougher for the industry to bounce back.”
Heather Poulos, marketing manager for Steenberg Vineyards, added: “We are devastated by the blow this decision has on the wine industry and the long term effect it will have on many livelihoods that depend on our industry.”
Three months of lost sales during the previous ban equated to more than 18% of Steenberg’s annual budget that it was unable to achieve. “With the new ban being imposed, we believe that further sales will be lost that will be unrecoverable. All of our front of house and sales team members at the winery, 18 people in total, have no work and are thus required to stay at home,” said Poulos.
Franck Dangereux, chef patron of The Foodbarn in Noordhoek, agreed. “I think it’s ridiculous. Our government should be able to differentiate where the sale of alcohol is a problem… it certainly isn’t in a sit-down restaurant where people come to enjoy a meal and a bottle of wine before catching an Uber home,” he said.
“We are taking a big risk in reopening and without a fully-fledged service to offer there is a chance we might not make it. Having waited more than three months and to find ourselves in this precarious situation really sucks.
“More restaurants will close down,” warned Dangereux. “Some irreparable damage is being done. It does not have to be so.”
Celeste Perry, co-owner of Fat Cactus restaurants (oh those good old days of chilli poppers and frozen margaritas) in Woodstock, Gardens and Mowbray, barely knows where to begin. “The government clearly doesn’t have a budget to support SMEs so it has allowed us to open but cut us off at the knees. It is just not viable for restaurants to operate as a quick service sit-down,” she said.
“It’s nonsensical – restaurants that are fully licensed, compliant and pay our taxes are not allowed to operate, but taxis are allowed to operate at 100% capacity as long as they open their windows.”
Since opening, Fat Cactus is operating at 10% of its normal turnover.
“We have been delivering alcohol so this just means that we will operate at a further loss,” said Perry. She called the 9pm curfew a “dog show” as it rules out a proper dinner service.
“It is costing us to have two of our three stores open. We cannot afford to pay our staff and TERS has still not been paid for June.”
Block House Kitchen and Jonkershuis in Constantia have been vigorously campaigning on Facebook since reopening for sit-down. The day I went for a walk at Groot Constantia it was raining, and there was no one at Jonkershuis. The farm was offering a “secret” R50 voucher off a bottle of wine to anyone coming through the gate, if you knew to ask for it. I didn’t need the bottle of 2017 Constantia Rood, but I took the incentive. A walk, seeing the ducks, splashing in puddles, and getting 50 bucks off a tasty wine seemed like the perfect afternoon activity.
Partner Chris Coetzee said he wasn’t surprised at the ban, but angry. “They have had 120 days to get ready for the peak, the funds have been looted and irregular spending has been ongoing, same old ANC. The wrong peeps are getting ‘beaten up’, same as the cooked chicken scenario. We are taking the hit for the mess in the townships. Years and years of corruption and thievery are now showing their ugly face – we are in for a massive mess here!” he said.
“Jonkershuis is ‘surviving’, mostly breakfasts and takeaway coffees and pastries. There is a huge amount of walkers, families etc. on the estate, but only in good weather. The no-alcohol for sit-down is devastating, with limited afternoon trade and almost zero dinner trade. We have closed both businesses at nights, except BHK on Friday and Saturday nights, which won’t last either.
“We are selling a fair amount of zero beers and alcohol-free wines. The latest no alcohol at all vibe will be catastrophic for the wine industry and estates as a whole.”
The Bru House & Diner, in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind, Magaliesburg (Gauteng), crafts (crafted) beer for its regular patrons and serves popular easy meals to suit every occasion. “Busy only on weekends… back in the old days!” said owner and brewer Rory Blake Taylor.
The alcohol ban closed Taylor’s business from day one of lockdown to date. “There is no way of covering the costs related to running our business without the – all weekend – sale of firstly the beer we brew (as an attraction) and secondly the other craft brands and alcohol products, that make up 50 + % of total turnover and a great portion of our overall margin,” he explained.
Taylor doesn’t believe there will be any dinner service at restaurants other than perhaps family local spots and even then only “properly”, post Covid-19. “Firstly, there’s a genuine shortage of funding coming down the track for ‘most’ South Africans, and secondly, while sometimes quite brazen, the panic levels regarding infection are on the rise,” he said.
Taylor’s customers have responded with an outpouring of empathy – because that’s all they have, he said. “Many empty-pocketed outpourings of empathy. It’s a very sad day for the industry and I can predict that once all is said and done there will be a hospitality industry worth less than half its pre-Corona value and will take years to revive. Fellow South Africans, we’re in free-fall.”
In March 2020, premises in Claremont were secured, and the launch of Salushi Lounge – an offspring of former restaurants – was in the pipeline.
“Salushi Lounge was to offer a slightly more intimate and refined experience in a restored Victorian home, complete with wood burning fireplace and an eclectic mix of lounge and traditional seating,” said owner Grant Isaacs. “A feature sushi bar was planned to take centre stage allowing patrons to get up close and personal with the sushi making process. Enter Covid-19 and the lockdown.
“For now, we are caught somewhere between the former Salushi Express and the anticipated Salushi Lounge, offering a slightly reduced menu in a relaxed, homely environment.”
Isaacs said he is disappointed, frustrated, but not surprised by the latest developments. “Government is floundering to keep the numbers from exploding and alcohol is a soft target. Unfortunately, all this ban will do is open up the illicit market with people spending exorbitant amounts that they can’t afford and, as a result, stay away from restaurants.”
Looking on the bright side, Isaacs said a 9pm curfew is better than a 7pm curfew, which might still present the opportunity for an early evening sitting, which had previously been circumspectly delayed. “But it’s less than ideal and will certainly affect dinner trade, which is far and away our busiest time.”
Already in turmoil, Isaacs said many were holding on in the hope of the industry being opened up. “I think this will be the final straw for many who can no longer afford to plough into their life savings in order to keep the lights on. We simply cannot survive on takeout and delivery – this has been well documented and we can testify to that.”
In the hands of the husband and wife team of chefs Kyle and Gabi Knight, The Shop in Sea Point serves bistro-style food, focusing on seasonal and sustainable produce.
“To be honest, from a restaurant point of view, the sale of off-consumption wine was never really an income for us. The ban of on-consumption sales has been devastating to us,” said Gabi Knight, with a side note and a wry smile that she’s “just emotional that I might not have enough wine for myself to get through these tough times”.
As South Africans, having a drink is a huge part of our culture, said Knight. “With the allowance of sit-down now, no one wants to sit and have a meal if they cannot sip on a glass of wine. We are struggling to cover overheads but luckily for our staff they have been successful with TERS.”
Only being open for dinner trade, the curfew is a huge blow. “It’s a stressful rush to get the few tables fed, kitchen cleaned and the staff to the taxi rank so that they don’t miss their taxi ride home,” said Knight, who has been on an emotional roller coaster. “We had just replenished food stock with the opening up of sit-down without the restriction of the curfew. And now we can only hope we can cover the cost with only a three-hour gap of dinner trade.”
As restaurant owners there has been no assistance financially, said Knight. “Yes there were loans which had to be paid back. But that would put a restaurant into more financial strain.
“If the restaurant doesn’t survive there will be no jobs to go back to.
“Insurance has not come to the party either. We have been left out to dry – and as a small husband and wife restaurant cash flow is tight on a good day and it’s a daily struggle to keep the lights on.”
Lights, you say? Eskom: here, hold my non-alcoholic beer.
The knock-on effect of the alcohol ban has the potential to be catastrophic, not only for restaurants but for wine exports and the liquor industry as a whole. Tim Hutchinson is group CEO and shareholder of DGB, which owns several wineries and spirits brands. “Initially, during the first shutdown exports were banned which was crazy when the country is so desperate for foreign exchange earnings and the export market is so competitive,” he said. “It was tragic to see South Africa lose hard earned brand listings because of out of stocks as there is a global wine surplus, so there was no shortage of replacements.
“The further shutdown announced on Sunday will have a devastating long-term impact. Directly and indirectly, the industry supports more than a million jobs. During the last shutdown more than 120,000 jobs were lost, so one can anticipate this figure more than doubling.
“This is not taking into account the further impact this will have on the supply chain of bottles, cartons, capsules, label printers, transport and many more. The tragedy is the real impact will be on businesses operating in the townships with 35,000 small business owners already struggling to survive before this new draconian shutdown.”
Eight hundred SMME and micro liquor manufacturers are already facing bankruptcy and if this current shutdown continues for longer than a couple of weeks, these producers will be lost to the industry with the resultant job losses, Hutchinson predicts.
Part of the government’s reasoning behind the total ban on alcohol and imposing the curfew is that much-needed hospital beds are being filled by trauma patients with alcohol-induced injuries. It’s blatantly obvious the healthcare system is already in shambles, and this has to be weighed against the necessity to save the economy – on every level.
“We are desperate to see the data the Minister refers to regarding hospital admissions, as to keep quoting anecdotal information voiced by Minister Cele is irresponsible,” said Hutchinson. “In my opinion the Western Cape has field hospitals that are not currently full as they used the first lockdown time well and prepared for the spike in infections.
“This did not appear to happen in the case of Gauteng and now the knee jerk reaction is to cripple a major industry. The real challenge facing the Gauteng Department of Health is the need for field hospitals which need manpower and professional project management, and there is a critical need for additional clinical staff and lots more equipment and oxygen.”
Carolyn Martin, co-owner of Creation Wines in Hemel-en-Aarde valley near Hermanus said fair warning of the ban should have been given. “We live in a democratic, not an autocratic state. It is unreasonable and unfair that the ban announced by the President should prejudice those who ordered and paid for wine before the ban was implemented. Customers who have done so should be permitted to receive the delivery of their wine.
“Surely there must be less restrictive measures for the government to achieve its purposes?”
Creation has already felt the pain in terms of staffing and is currently working on a 60% capacity. “This is devastating for me as our team is so gracious and like family. We are trying to redeploy staff to other areas of the business to make sure we retain as many as possible,” said Martin.
“It is so hard to manage the government’s chop-and-change policy shifts without any notice and try to work on a plan. For instance: we have just launched our innovative Creation Alchemy Tasting Kits and our Creation Tasting Kits which allow wine lovers to taste our wines at home. Each kit contains six 50 ml bottles of wine and in the case of the Alchemy Kit a wonderful range of snacks for sensorial tasting. This is literally a glass of wine at home and a really fun and educational experience. We hope to resume this when the ban is lifted.”
Like everyone else, Karin de Villiers of Klein Roosboom in the Durbanville wine valley, is gutted. “It’s not raining, it’s pouring!” she said. “I believe the entire industry is in shock as we were all expecting the president to announce that on-site consumption would be allowed in certain circumstances.”
The farm also has a restaurant, Jéan, which was converted into a deli during the first week of June. “We decided not to do any sit-downs but only self-help with tables in the vineyards where guests can enjoy the sunlight and their deli goodies. We opened the farm to guests to bring their children for walks in the vineyards,” said De Villiers. “It has been very successful and the feedback was amazing. The natural environment provides a comforting experience at Klein Roosboom. We plan to keep on with the deli until December, mainly because we expect change in regulations around every corner. We do click and collect Sunday lunches too.
“The 9pm curfew will kill evening service for the guys that are offering it. Staff need to be home before 9pm.”
Chef Pete Goffe-Wood broke down how this would apply in practice.
“The new 9pm curfew makes dinner service virtually impossible. Dinner service between 4.30pm and 6pm. All patrons would have to leave the restaurant by 6.30/7pm at the latest. A normal post dinner service clean down would take at least an hour, longer now because every inch of the place – back and front of house – must be sanitised. Staff would leave the premises by 8pm and have one hour in which to get home before curfew. Eighty percent of restaurant staff in non-rural areas will take longer than one hour to get home.
“Of course, this time schedule doesn’t factor in load shedding.”
Ah yes, our old friend, load shedding, wreaking havoc with everything. There’s a saying that when you make plans, God laughs. Same goes for Eskom.
Let’s look at it from a customer’s point of view for a moment. There are those who have bought and paid for wine (and other alcohol) online who will not get delivery until who knows when. It was a slightly better scenario when we anticipated the Level 3 deliveries and there were lots of lovely specials and discounts. This doesn’t feel the same at all.
Wine farms were doing innovative virtual or online tastings – like Creation, which I experienced, or with YouTube videos like Steenberg, ditto. I was looking forward to a wine and music pairing with Bellevue, a food and wine pairing with Bouchard Finlayson and Oyster Box, and a Gourmet & Grapes event on Facebook yesterday evening with Bertus Basson and Waterford’s Mark le Roux. All cancelled. My first-world disappointment is only a tiny part of the bigger picture.
“We understand Covid exists and people are getting sick and dying. As an industry, we have put rigorous safety protocols into place to ensure that our guests can dine safely with us. We were not allowed to sell alcohol in restaurants up to now in any case, but one of the lifelines restaurants had was to be able to open as a wine shop, like we did with Spek & Bone, or sell wine with our take-aways or home deliveries which we did,” said Basson.
“The announcement made it so much harder for our industry to keep its doors open. Through all of this we have been given opportunities to explore new business models and we will continue to hustle and mitigate our way through this, however, the aftershocks of these decisions will be felt in hospitality for a long time to come.”
It’s small, if any, comfort, and inspirational quotes don’t fill bellies or pay rent but “It’s not about how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up” – and several variations thereof – have been accredited to Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Jaime Escalante, Confucius, Walt Disney, and Taylor Swift. Napoléon Bonaparte said: “Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have strength.”
This is a war, so it’s apt to turn to those who have had experience in these matters. We’ll leave you with these words from Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” For what else are the battle-weary to do? DM/TGIFood