Knocked down again, restaurateurs claw their way back

Knocked down again, restaurateurs claw their way back
Matt stirs the pot. The Virtual Dining Experience comprises five courses: three are ready to plate, the other two you finish at home with the help of Matt Manning’s instruction manual and video. (Photo: Tegan Smith Photography)

Restaurants dragged themselves towards the finish line of 2020, broken and bleeding, only to be dealt more crippling blows in the new year. An earlier curfew and complete ban on alcohol sales, until 15 January, have knocked the stuffing out of the restaurant industry just when there seemed to be a glimmer of hope.

The first rule of 2021, they say, is never talk about 2020. Those who survived it will know it was craziness upon madness on top of incredulity wrapped up in WTF. And a week into this new year it already looks like it’s a case of “here, hold my beer” along with a dramatic eye-rolling “bitch, please”. Every morning the news has me muttering Dorothy Parker’s words: “What fresh hell is this?”

The archives are crammed with stories about what the hospitality and restaurant industries endured, and the wild Coronacoaster they rode throughout various levels of lockdown and restrictions in 2020. Battered and bruised, restaurateurs picked themselves up and reinvented their offerings in an attempt to stave off total disaster. Not all of them made it.

And thus the roll call of closures begins again (albeit “until further notice”): two out of three Fat Cactus stores, Bones Kitchen & Bar, Lucky at Piano Bar, Rick’s Café Americain, Upper Bloem… and everyone’s talking about La Mouette in Sea Point being for sale, if you have a spare R10-million lying around.

The current Level 3 lockdown includes an earlier curfew of 9pm (meaning restaurants have to close by 8pm) and a total ban on alcohol sales, among other rules which are questionable. The level-headed are not opposed to this in principle; the inability of the general public to adhere to the most basic of safety and hygiene protocols (that grownups have to be told over and over to wash their hands is disturbing in itself), and a shocking aversion to wearing a mask correctly – so simple, right? – has resulted in stricter rules which are ultimately for everyone’s benefit but at the same time to the detriment of the restaurants and wine farms that are taking the hardest knock; along with their patrons who are actually able to behave in a responsible and considerate manner, and racking their brains to come up with ways to stay afloat. Sadly, many diners are not interested in a dinner seating at 6pm, especially when they can’t have a glass of wine with their meal. From restaurants’ side, the sale of alcohol accounts for a large percentage of their turnover and without it, covering overheads becomes next to impossible.

“Last March we came out of a very busy season, so we were financially cushioned. Now, all that money’s gone… it’s all gone,” said Liam Tomlin (Chef’s Warehouse but he doesn’t want all the credit because the restaurants have a team of hardworking chefs). 

Liam Tomlin is excited about the reinvention of the original Chef’s Warehouse in Bree Street, Cape Town. (Photo: Claire Gunn Photography)

“If you look at what’s happened in Ireland, the UK, all over the world, they’ve gone into complete lockdown again and really, if we really want to contain this, we should go into a complete lockdown. But the reason they haven’t done that is because they’ll have to start paying TERS again, and there are no funds for that. So they say we can open but we can’t serve alcohol – but we still have to pay our staff. They’re putting it in our hands. It’s terrible.”

Each of the restaurants is different, with different offerings and different customer base, said Tomlin. CW at Maison in Franschhoek, for example, is 75% overseas tourism based so that’s taken a big knock, and trading hours are being reduced. That said, locals have picked up some of the slack but the turnover is down 60% on last year – yet overheads are the same. “You still need to turn the gas on in the morning and it costs the same whether you do it for 10 customers or 200 customers,” said Tomlin. “Staffing, yes you can play a little bit, but the day you do the 120 covers you don’t want to fuck up your reputation by having half the amount of staff you should have, just to save a few hundred rand. It’s a really fine balance; where do you cut costs without jeopardising your product and without jeopardising the customer experience and the quality of service?”

Chef’s Warehouses at Beau Constantia and Tintswalo Atlantic are doing all right, because of their locations and views. Wine farms are truly having a terrible time as they have no way to generate income, but the restaurants can still serve food with non-alcoholic beverages.

“For me, a restaurant experience is made up of lots of different components, and alcohol is one of them. I think it’s quite sad if people cancel a booking if they can’t have alcohol. If you can’t go two or three hours without alcohol, maybe you need to go to a clinic,” said Tomlin.

The original Chef’s Warehouse in Bree Street, Cape Town CBD, is also very tourist-driven, said Tomlin, but right now it’s cheaper to have it closed than open, believe it or not.

He’s taking advantage of this forced downtime to redo the space with a view to reopening it as a fully Spanish experience, including tapas. Work was going to be done over weekends but now they’re going “hell for leather” and getting it all done in one go.

“And that excites me, really excites me,” said Tomlin, a light crossing his face. “The chefs are writing menus, it’s a positive, there’s activity, new colours – and we’re going to open with a brand new product. Chef’s Warehouse has grown into such a big brand; this one is almost like the poor cousin and it’s the original one. We’ve gone into all these fancy larney spots – which is fantastic, don’t get me wrong – and this one got left behind. I want to reinvent it and put it back on the map.”

If the restrictions are lifted after 15 January, Tomlin said the proposed opening date would be the middle of the following week. “I’m not opening until it’s 100% ready. Even if we’re fully kitted and done, if there’s no alcohol, I’m not going to open. I do want it open with the full experience.” 

Pause for dramatic effect… “I’m contradicting myself,” he acknowledged.

Sure, but there are two sides to every story and we can argue this for days; fact is, we do like our wine with our food. I know I do. Plus, this will be Spanish tapas, in a bar, and what’s tapas without a little glass of wine or sherry?

If you can’t bring yourself to visit a restaurant for whatever your reasons, a way of getting around this dilemma is to order for delivery or collection and eat at home with the wine you were clever enough to stock up on because you knew this time would come. Sorry for you if you didn’t; you had plenty of time to learn this lesson.

Coronation Chicken from Dish Food & Social. (Photo: Jurie Senekal)

Home delivery is not for everyone. I mentioned the D word and Tomlin quietly said “no”. Softly, slowly, three times. 

“Our businesses are not built for it. You have to buy containers, you have to buy this, buy that. We’re just not geared for that, and it’s not our market. I don’t want my guys to work their arses off in the kitchen to make a beautiful product that some guys picks up, who I’ve never met in my entire life, on a clapped out motorbike that shouldn’t be on the road, and goes to the house 600 metres up the road where he picks up a lovely tip … for me it’s just not a fair system and I won’t support it. I’m not interested.” 

There are restaurants which are supplementing their reduced sit-down trading with deliveries and collections/takeaways, and others that have decided to shut down that side of things and focus only on home dining. Like Matt Manning of Grub & Vine in the Cape Town CBD. He looked so weary, dazed even, like a shell-shocked soldier, when he personally dropped off my Virtual Dining Experience box yesterday. “I don’t know how many more times I can reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Matt Manning of Grub & Vine, Culture, Chef’s Studio and Virtual Dining. (Photo: Tegan Smith Photography)

Manning didn’t close his restaurant and wine bar immediately after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s last family meeting but said he had an inkling stricter regulations were coming when the address was announced. “But we – perhaps naively – didn’t expect the alcohol ban and new curfew. It caught us a bit out of left field, and it completely squashes dinner trade – our main service. It was a harsh blow, especially right before New Year’s, which was looking to be our best night in terms of bookings/anticipated revenue, since we had reopened,” he said. 

“Following the address, we took a day or so to decide on the way forward, and in that time guests were cancelling reservations left, right and centre. We did a bit of number crunching, and ultimately it would cost us more to stay open than close temporarily, so we sadly decided to shut our doors pending the outcome of the next address on 15 January. 

“We therefore closed on December 30, and did a rapid about-turn to instead offer Virtual Dining rather than a sit-down dinner on New Year’s Eve. There was a good response to this, and we sold to over 50 pax on the evening.”

Virtual Dining was born out of necessity when lockdown hit last year, when deliveries and takeaways were allowed. “It is not a huge money maker – it more or less covers its own costs, but it helps in that it keeps our team motivated, and our name out there,” said Manning. “I wanted a concept that featured our Grub & Vine-style cuisine but that was true to what we were doing at the Chef’s Studio – with an interactive twist in that guests would have to do a bit of prep at home… not too much, just enough to be fun!” 

Support via Virtual Dining and gift vouchers has been welcomed and Manning says they are very grateful for it. “It is also great to see a lot of repeat orders of Virtual Dining, which indicates that we are getting it right, and offering something unique that customers are responding to. So that is very positive.”

The Virtual Dining box arrives with everything you need to prepare a quite spectacular five-course dinner: canapés, amuse bouche, middle course (the starter), main course and dessert. Three of those are ready to plate and two are interactive and require some basic kitchen skills. Along with the box you get two video tutorials by Manning, and a PDF booklet with all the instructions and guidelines for plating everything like a professional.

Well, that’s the theory.

My friend and I are fairly competent cooks, comfortable in the kitchen. We sorted through all the containers, did a form of mise en place, and watched the videos. Our plating, however, left much to be desired so there is no evidence of it on Instagram… but it was oh so delicious.

For canapés were arancini (which needed 10 or so minutes in the oven, not difficult), and sago tacos topped with avocado mousse and smoked hake roe mayo – conveniently provided in their own little piping bags so we could dot them onto the tacos. 

Well, that’s the theory.

Our piping skills left much to be desired and hilarity ensued (along with the 2015 Pinot Noir I’d found in my “cellar”, a jolly fine pairing) when we got to the same technique with sweet potato purée for the duck main course.

Before that came the amuse bouche of rainbow trout with watercress purée (this time already done for us) with watercress, beetroot pickle and herb oil; and the starter of gnocchi with baby spinach, cauliflower purée, kale and parmesan crisps, cauliflower shavings, Parmesan shavings and cauliflower crumb. This was the first interactive course with a video to help.

The duck main course had multiple elements: confit leg (done, thank god), duck breast, sweet potato fondant, baby gem lettuce, sweet potato purée, naartjie marmalade, gooseberries, duck sauce, and micro herbs. The thyme and garlic provided were for cooking the breast, and the delicate ribbons of sweet potato crisps added the finishing touch and texture. Our dish wasn’t the prettiest thing we’ve ever cooked but our duck was the same doneness as Manning’s in the video, and the whole lot was delectable.

For dessert there was lemon tart (a favourite of mine) with passion fruit gel, blueberry ice cream, cashew nut praline and Italian meringue shards. This too remained in its delivery container for aesthetics.

Manning echoes Tomlin’s words about the first lockdown in March 2020: “The first time round, we were in a strong position following a good summer season, and were able to keep all staff on payroll, pay all suppliers we owed and cover all expenses. We also have a fantastic landlord, so that helped a lot. 

“This time, we are again trying to keep all our staff in our employ, but things are admittedly tougher. If things continue beyond January 15, we may need to make some tough decisions. My fear is that it does continue beyond the 15th – a distinct likelihood, especially if you look at the global situation. Simply put: the hospitality industry at large will not be able to afford lockdown for much longer…you can already see it happening, with the bloodbath of restaurant closures we are currently seeing.” 

You can plate your Virtual Dining dessert beautifully and artistically, or you can take the win of having it directly – and unsullied – from its container. (Photo: Tegan Smith Photography)

La Tête Restaurant in Cape Town CBD is doing dinner boxes (for collection) as an option to those who choose not to dine out, and to help with cash flow, said manager Sonja Meyer. “We did offer dinner boxes with home delivery from Level 4 up until we re-opened the restaurant at the end of October 2020. We started them again after the liquor ban and curfew were reinstated, as we try to keep ourselves flexible in what is normally our busiest time.”

Some of the dishes are taken from the sit-down menu, while some are specially made such as the Pies for Two.

Judd’s Local up in Kloof Street, Tamboerskloof, which opened in December 2020 and serves breakfast and lunch, is planning to introduce a variety of “Little Big Boxes” for four with tapas, bread and dessert; burgers with fries and pastries (for dessert, unless you’re weird and that’s okay too); roast Sunday lunch; and a braai box – all for collection or delivery within a 5km radius.

Makers Landing at V&A Waterfront, which also opened in December 2020, introduced food boxes over New Year’s and will continue to do so. The MOSI Heat and Eat Braai, for example, includes a whole braaied chicken with amasi lemon basting, with chakalaka, pap and three-bean salad on the side, for R245. It feeds two, and if you want to meet the makers, you can collect for R220.

MOSI comprises two very cool guys, G and OG (of My Kitchen Rules fame), said Andy Fenner, owner and founder of Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants and member of the Makers Landing curatorial panel.

“They are reinterpreting pap en vleis by offering it in a contemporary way. The pap is infused with various ingredients before being baked and then fried!” 

There always was the idea that with so many like-minded people in one space, deliveries of their products would be explored. “With Level 3 this was accelerated. Jenny Ward and Hannerie Visser led an incredible team to pull that off at very short notice. The response was amazing and we actually sold out,” said Fenner. 

“We want people to feel safe and if part of this is getting products into people’s kitchens then we will do that. We have to do that, in fact, to give our incredible tenants the best chance of success. Foot traffic has been okay – we were gaining nice momentum when the new restrictions were announced and it is definitely a blow. 

“Having a distillery and a brewery as two key tenants does leave us with a bit of a hole. That said, we have had various Covid-19 consultants walk the space and every one of them has declared it as one of the safest sites people can visit. 

“It is huge, with ventilation, triple volume areas, outside areas, social distancing markers, sanitisation stands dotted around etc. Honestly, it feels a lot safer than a restaurant. The major casualty was our market space, where we had selected several small businesses to have stands. We made the tough decision to hold off on these, to allow people more space when visiting. All things considered, we are very happy with the way it has been received.” 

Then there are the places that are purely delivery-focused. Two for which I can personally vouch are Dish Food & Social, and Fude Forever.

Dish Food & Social’s yakitori beef. (Photo: Jurie Senekal)

Dish Food & Social was founded in Andrea Foulkes’s home kitchen in 2002, catering for events of all types and sizes, all around South Africa (and some one-off events in London, Zimbabwe and Botswana). “We also run the restaurant at Pieter Toerien’s Theatre on the Bay, which has been closed since March 2020,” said Foulkes.

“Covid and lockdown shut down events entirely – we literally had every upcoming event (big and small) cancelled over the space of four days. People also stopped having small gatherings. 

“Since 2008, we’d run a Tuesday Special from May to August, which was a really well-priced prepared dinner for four people. We had a very basic online shop to process these orders – and, most importantly, a mailing list. When the Cape Epic was cancelled in the middle of March 2020 we immediately swung into action, with our first home delivered meals offering going out that week.

“We had to close for lockdown (and didn’t try to bend the rules) and then threw ourselves 150% into this new direction as soon as we were allowed to. We were able to cater for a few very small events towards the end of last year, but our main business has now definitely turned to home deliveries of value for money, daily meals.”

A curry feast from Dish Food & Social. (Photo: Jurie Senekal)

Dish Food & Social has a huge offering, and from my experience, is excellent value for money and very delicious. There are daily meals, as well as loads of other yummies for a tiny party in line with social gathering rules, and even breads from Loaves By Madame Baker. The most difficult part is deciding what to order. 

“We feel for all of our colleagues who are in the industry, and do whatever we can to support them. Every single meal sold makes a difference – with or without a glass of wine,” said Foulkes.

“It’s really roughest for restaurants at the moment. They don’t get to trade for a full evening service, and they can’t sell alcohol, and yet they have all the same overheads and expenses.”

Tamsyn Wells was the executive chef at 15 On Orange Autograph Collection hotel in Gardens, until Covid-19 retrenchment.

“On hard lockdown I started to test foods I had not made before but had perhaps tried on my travels, like Biang Biang noodles,” said Wells. “These are made by banging the noodle dough on the kitchen top as the dough stretches resulting in such an interesting texture. There were many more, like the cruller doughnut, a French-style doughnut piped and deep fried and the now best seller; and my potsticker kit with specially selected accompaniments.

“My friends began to ask me if they could try these and that was where Fude Forever began. I started the business in June 2020 and step by step have added divisions with new ideas coming in 2021. I called it Fude Forever because I am forever thinking, eating, watching, reading and creating all things Fude.”

Amaze glazed prawn poke bowl from Fude Forever. (Photo: Supplied)

A daily menu changes every week. Portions are generous, beautifully colourful, and include little surprise gifts on the side, like prawn crackers with the salmon poke bowl. I love prawn crackers! And the poke bowls were so good I ate both instead of sharing the second one. Sorry not sorry. Not in the same sitting, in my weak defence.

“We have a Fude kit menu available every day too which are semi prepared dishes that take under 20 minutes to finish off – like potsticker dim sum kits, an easy pizza method for a home oven and poke bowls etc,” said Wells, who is based in Sea Point and does deliveries within a small radius, or you can collect. 

“I am enjoying the new challenges of home delivery, takeaway and catering. As a qualified chef I have always used the correct and strict cleaning and sanitising methods with temperature controls etc in place, so have always had a strict hygiene regimen. It has been amazing to make and create dishes which are aimed at home delivery or kits, receiving the great feedback, selecting the right packaging and designing new dishes daily. 

“I experienced the need myself during lockdown, with dishes constantly piling up in the sink, friends or family in quarantine needing nutritious food and not able to shop, and boredom with meal choices, so I consider all this when preparing the menus to keep freshness, health and ease in mind. Tasting different foods while travelling was always my favourite thing so I incorporate foods from around the world so the menus stay exciting and hopefully ignite a happy travel memory too.” 

Others looking for new ways to make a living include Foxcroft Constantia, which is now open for breakfast from 8am till 10.30am daily; and Buitenverwachting wine estate, also in Constantia, is offering takeaway platters for two. You can take your own plate, or have it packed in eco-friendly boxes (for a small additional fee).

We’re all having our own personal circumstances, crises and battles, and to say it’s heartbreaking is the biggest understatement of the year – yes, even so far. Supporting a restaurant or food delivery service in any small way will help them, and the families of their staff. DM/TGIFood


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