KNIVES OUT: The restaurant industry fights back (with full video)

KNIVES OUT: The restaurant industry fights back (with full video)
Left to right, Liam Tomlin, Reuben Riffel, Tony Jackman.

This week Thank God It’s Food held its first webinar, with TGIFood editor Tony Jackman hosting two of the country’s leading chefs, Liam Tomlin and Reuben Riffel, to discuss the effect of lockdown regulations on the industry.


Watch the webinar here

One does not merely work in a restaurant. Unless you’re a trust fund kid and your parents want you to learn the value of good honest hard graft and what it takes to earn money so in your gap year so you waiter for a summer season in Camps Bay.

No. It’s called the service industry for a reason. The people who own restaurants, cook in restaurants – live, breathe and sweat in restaurants – are answering that call to serve. The hours are long and antisocial; the best romantic relationships are between those who are in the same game. It’s hours and hours on your feet, double shifts of preparing and plating meal after meal, before cleaning down the kitchen from top to bottom, corner to corner. It’s going out after that for a few drinks with your colleagues, then getting up and doing it all over again the next day – with blisters on your feet, blue plasters over your cuts, scars from the burns on your arms, and a smile on your face.

It’s a career and it’s a life. It’s not for sissies.

It’s these very special people, who have committed their very hearts and souls to this service, who are now crumbling under the weight of lockdown restrictions, which are ever-changing and often seem illogical or unreasonable. Thousands of restaurant workers participated in 1 Million Seats On The Streets around the country on July 22, 2020 to protest peacefully under the banner of #jobssavelives, and a second demonstration is planned outside Parliament in Cape Town today, July 24. Between these two public gatherings, Daily Maverick’s Thank God It’s Food editor Tony Jackman hosted the segment’s first webinar with guests Reuben Riffel and Liam Tomlin (who inadvertently coined the hashtag which has gone viral all over the world).

“We had a brilliant reception yesterday. At about 11.30am there weren’t many people on Bree Street and I was getting a little bit concerned,” Tomlin, owner of the Chefs Warehouse Group, told the webinar audience. “I thought we wouldn’t get the response we were hoping for but by 12pm – I don’t know how many but it was in the hundreds – people were there, from young students to restaurateurs, to our staff, hotel staff behind us, restaurant staff from across the street, our suppliers came. And then, most importantly, we had amazing support from our customers and regular guests, they all had signs. Others were driving up and down, hooting their horns. It was incredible, wonderful to see.” 

Attending the webinar were many restaurateurs as well as parties with a vested interest: diners. The issues at the core of the webinar included the accumulated effect on the restaurant industry – which has already resulted in too many permanent closures – as well as the current prohibition, and the 9pm curfew. This is in effect a 7.30pm curfew, noted Jackman; dining is cut short so premises can be rigorously sanitised, and staff transported home without being stopped and fined.

The inability to responsibly sell alcohol with meals (enforcing a tiny little law that makes them mutually inclusive is such a clear remedy for this) – something which is laid out in their liquor licences – along with forcing guests to eat early bird dinners like everyone is an old age pensioner, is hobbling restaurants. But truth be told, the reluctance of the public to go out and mingle with other humans is also a critical factor. We can have the utmost faith in the restaurants to uphold safe hygiene protocols, but what about the masses, who still inexplicably don’t or won’t wear masks (for example)?

“I do not believe we should be focusing on changing how we do things if what we did was successful,” said webinar attendee Julie Huckle, owner of Pirates Steakhouse in Plumstead, Cape Town (which we locals call “The Ritz”). “We need to focus on changing the mindset of the general public. We are not the enemy; our role is to serve and this has not changed. We have been innovative, but it is not the heart and soul of what we are about. Takeaways are never as good as a meal in the restaurant.”

Social media is full of pics of tragically empty restaurant interiors, while those with outside seating seem to be faring better. Riffel and Tomlin shared the view that restaurants are in fact among the safest places to be right now.

“The reality is, we can’t be in lockdown forever,” said Riffel. “Unless we get a vaccine we’re going to have to learn to live with this virus. I would like for us to refocus on how we do this, in all businesses. Entering a restaurant, you get your temperature checked, and a spray of sanitiser, and you wear a mask – I think that’s a good start, but I don’t think that’s the answer to how we can make people feel comfortable, to come support us. I’m sure we can work on better solutions.”

Tomlin has, at great expense, expanded his kitchen spaces to allow for physical distancing between staff members, and converting seating areas into private dining rooms for the truly skittish patrons (and those who are medically vulnerable but still want to have a nice meal out).

“During lockdown we’ve been busy. At Beau Constantia we’ve extended the kitchen so chefs have more space, and we’ve reduced the number of chefs at any particular time. Spaces in other restaurants are being converted into private dining rooms now to try to cater for people who have concerns about going to a restaurant and sharing space with other people, and who might be more comfortable coming to a private dining room with just you and your family or friends, and will feel a lot safer. You’d only have interaction with one waiter. We’re doing everything we can to make it possible so we can open and start saving some jobs.

“This is what it’s about right now, for me. It’s about saving jobs.”

A 100-seater restaurant is designed to serve 100 people, if not more. It’s designed to turn tables. It’s very hard, under normal circumstances, to make a profit, explained Tomlin. “Now, we have to reduce the number of people by turning a space for 20 people into a private dining room for, say, eight people. And we have to look at it and ask if it’s worthwhile and a viable business.”

For now, they will do the best they can, said Tomlin, but as soon as they are able to go back to full capacity, those private dining areas will be reabsorbed. “For now, we have to get people into our restaurants, feeling comfortable and feeling safe. We want to survive.”

From a customer point of view, there will be no menus, said Riffel. “QR codes can be used, or menus can be emailed or Whatsapped. Or you can have an old school blackboard menu that only the waiters touch.” Hygiene protocols are already the norm, but even so, they can be improved upon, and money will have to be spent to “get better at it” said Riffel.

“A lot of people have those concerns but for me, going to a restaurant now is no different than going to the supermarket. It’s no different than going to fill your car up with petrol. It’s no different than dropping your kids up or picking them up from school. I know some parents aren’t sending their children back to school, and I get that. I understand that,” he said. 

“But going to restaurants is probably one of the safest things to do right now. Because we are spacing our tables. Because we always keep our kitchens clean as it is. We can’t get insurance unless we’ve got the certificates for extraction hoods etc. so I get them cleaned every two months, in five restaurants. 

“It’s probably safer than walking down Sea Point promenade at 9 o’clock in the morning, when everybody’s out exercising.”

On top of all this, winter is a hell hole for restaurants, said Jackman, who has been in this business in some form or another since the 1970s. It always has been; Capetonians in particular are notoriously difficult to pry from their houses even pre-pandemic, and for those who were willing, there were always wonderful rewards in the form of winter specials.

The picture begins to look increasingly bleak.

The mass action has turned the spotlight onto the plight of restaurants but what if, posited Jackman, playing devil’s advocate, they were to simply suck it up and sit it out until the pandemic has passed, and begin all over again from scratch?

“That sounds very easy,” said Tomlin. “It’s not that simple. It’s really not that simple. Let me tell you, I have lost a business before and I have got up and dusted myself off. It took me about a year to do that. It took me about a year to find my confidence again because when you lose a business – for whatever reason – you lose your confidence. The massive effect it has on mental health… and I can see it already, the effect it’s had on some of my staff members, some of my friends – in and out of this industry – people very close to me. I can see the changes. We have to go in every day and motivate them and encourage them and try to be as positive as possible, and keep the spirit up. That’s why we opened for take-out, to get the motivation going again, and to keep our brand alive. It’s not as easy as ‘let’s just close doors, walk away and come back in six months’ time’. Covid’s not going anywhere quick, I don’t think, for quite a while. I think it’s a ridiculous comment.”

It’s not only restaurants, Riffel added. “There are so many businesses that will be affected if we just close. Think of our suppliers – and not just big suppliers. I think in most cases – and Liam will know – we work with small producers and suppliers. Imagine the people working at those. It goes far deeper than just the restaurants. It’s a hell of a lot more people than just us.”

Although this exchange took place in the final minutes of the webinar, it categorically provided the answer that closure is just not doable, and definitely not viable. “Therefore, the government HAS to listen to you guys,” said Jackman. “These decisions have to be revisited.”

Jackman said he personally needs this fight to continue, not just as a journalist or industry observer but as a human being affected by the pandemic. It’s a valid point, given the widespread consequences of the regulations which are decimating an entire sector of the economy, with little or no hope of eventual recovery.

While many are bemoaning the fact they can’t buy a six-pack of beer or a bottle of rum, empty restaurants translate into empty bellies. Not a little hunger pang; real starvation, as hundreds of thousands of jobs are lost. This is the time for the government to show its humanity.

Following the protest on Wednesday, and during the webinar, the questions on everybody’s lips (and fingertips) are “Is the government listening? What will they do, if anything?” Tomlin said he’d like to think they’re listening, he “really would”. With all the coverage in the media, it’s not as if they can say they didn’t know. “They can’t be ignoring it. Somebody has to be looking at it and saying ‘it’s a crisis’,” said Tomlin.

At the time of writing, the silence was still deafening, although Wendy Alberts, president of the Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA) did sit down with Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane for coffee on Thursday. Two memorandums were handed to the minister at empty tables on the streets – one for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and the other for President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“The only thing we need now is for the government to stop targeting us and allow us to offer the service,” said Huckle. “We are already highly regulated and competent in the handling of liquor. The webinar was great. I came across it last so did not even catch the name of the guy on the right, but I now have huge respect for him. His answers mirrored my thoughts.” DM/TGIFood


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