TGIFOOD

FLATTENED

Here we go again – and some restaurants won’t survive this

La Colombe offers fine dining at home. (Photo: Candice Bresler)

After nearly 18 months of ups and downs, alcohol bans, limited trading, and curfews, restaurants are facing yet another challenge to stay alive.

The writer supports Ladles Of Love that serves hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children and families from its depots throughout the Cape region.

Extreme Soupathon was launched in April 2020 for vulnerable Cape Town communities facing hunger overnight as a result of the national lockdown in response to Covid-19. 

We’ve all heard of déjà vu, but what about déjà moo? It’s the feeling we’ve seen or heard this bullshit before. Four hundred and fifty-eight days after South Africa first went into hard Covid-19 lockdown on March 27, 2020, we found ourselves in an even worse scenario, with rocketing infection and unemployment rates, abysmal vaccine rollout, and a B-team minister of health.

We were so cute back then, in another lifetime; lockdown didn’t have levels or adjusted levels, and we all thought it would only be 21 days… we’ve got this. We’re now on a cumulative number of 462 days, five of which have been in “adjusted Level 4”. Our great and fearless leader promises it will be revised after 14 days. By then it will already be too late for many.

After a range of regulations and trading restrictions since this began, restaurants find themselves once again unable to sell alcohol – on or off site – and unable to host sitdown diners. It’s back to takeaways and deliveries only, a business model that allows for a minuscule profit margin, if any; the fee for third party delivery can swallow another 30%. Wine farms and other liquor outlets have closed their doors. This week I interviewed a range of chefs and restaurant owners, from fine dining to local bakery, cooking classes to wine merchants, and it’s a painful picture of not just an industry on its knees but intensely personal devastation.

They’re doing everything they can, these restaurant owners. Some are shutting down for their annual leave (typical winter in Cape Town) with the hope that this too shall pass and they can reopen in a month. Some are encouraging their staff to take annual paid leave (there’s no hope of government assistance; some are waiting for TERS payouts backlogged to November 2020, and let’s not even start with the looted funds; the politicians can deal with that).

Some just can’t any more. They’re giving up. With fridges full of fresh produce, because apparently none of the decisionmakers gave this a moment’s thought. Not to mention the thousands of people now jobless with hungry mouths to feed. Some began selling off their fish and vegetables to anyone who would pay and collect. At least one ballsy opportunist advertised a WhatsApp group selling alcohol, in a Facebook group.

Societi Bistro’s famous Chocolate Nemesis. (Photo: Supplied)

For those who are staggering to their feet from the eight count, clinging to the ropes while the stars and tweety birds whizz around their battered skulls, takeaway and delivery menus have been written, and plans put into place. It’s by no means ideal but we cannot help but admire the resilience and determination at play here, and above all, hope.

Before we hear from all these people, let’s take a look back at the various lockdown levels since March 2020. It began with the application of social distancing measures, fewer tables, fewer diners. Then as suddenly as is the government’s wont, all shebeens, bars and restaurants selling alcohol were to close at 6pm, and reopen at 9am. On March 25, 2020, I wrote: “Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane signed off on a directive to the restaurant industry on Tuesday, 24 March, in light of the Covid-19 lockdown, effectively shutting the industry down completely for three weeks. It was made clear that this includes all food delivery services, which many restaurateurs had hoped would be a lifeline that would keep them in business.”

Two days later, this was published: “South Africans scrambled this week when the Government made further announcements that affect the food and beverage industry during the national lockdown, which began today, March 27, 2020.”

They were only just coming to terms with the fact that they could no longer order deliveries from restaurants or get takeaways, when they were sucker punched by the news that alcohol was forbidden. “You can’t buy it, you can’t order it online with your bread and milk, and you can’t even transport it anywhere in the boot of your car, or your handbag.”

Twenty-one days! We can do it!

Cooking at Salt & Sage. (Photo: Jesse Jordan Photography)

By mid-April 2020, we could have meal kits delivered, boxes of fresh produce, and groceries from the supermarket. Still nothing from a restaurant, and not a sip of wine. Smokers were paying small fortunes for weird brands no one had heard of. Frozen meals were allowed, roast chickens were not. There was even a special amendment to the law about hot cooked food.

“There has never been a better time to buy wine. That could well be one of the craziest statements you’ve heard so far on Day 43 (Day 8 of Level 4) of national lockdown, when the sale of alcohol is still banned,” I wrote enthusiastically on May 8, 2020. To clarify: we could buy it online, we just couldn’t have it delivered.

Two weeks later, optimism soared with restaurants being allowed to do home deliveries. It was still Level 4. By Level 3, at the beginning of June 2020, restaurants could use their on-site consumption licences to sell liquor off-site, with or without an accompanying food order. While still at Level 3, restaurants were finally allowed to open for sit-down customers at the beginning of July – but we still couldn’t have a drink. Oh no, that was still months away, and not before booze was banned entirely again in the middle of July. “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 although allowed, diners were only trickling back. In August 2020, “President Cyril Ramaphosa announced ‘the suspension of the sale of alcohol will be lifted subject to certain restrictions’, permitting it for on-site consumption in licensed establishments only up until 10pm.” It was time to get back out there.

Everything ticked over quite nicely for a while. Things even began to feel vaguely normal, despite curfews and masks and sanitiser. The real cherry on the top came at the end of 2020, with another ban, between Christmas and New Year. Curfew was at 9pm, booze was off the table again. Somehow we’d leapfrogged from Level 3 to Level 1 but suddenly it didn’t feel like it any more; we were soon catapulted back. “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.” It wasn’t much of a jolly new year: “With alert Level 3 lockdown regulations extended, including the ban on alcohol sales and on-site consumption at restaurants and tasting rooms, wine businesses are reeling. Not all of them will recover.”

Smitten has always been about celebrating love, life and our appetite for good food, says Imraan Vagar. (Photo: Imraan Vagar)

Still languishing at Level 3, at the beginning of February 2021, retail outlets could sell alcohol and licensed outlets could serve drinks on site, within certain hours. And that brings us more or less up to date, dragged into Level 4 with no alcohol anywhere anytime; for a giddy moment, alcohol sales were restricted but not banned. We have been told for the past year and a half it’s because we can’t control ourselves and don’t know how to behave and therefore fill the precious beds at hospitals already under strain from the rampant ’Rona because we drive our cars into each other and beat up our partners.

Along with this fourth immediate ban came the blow that restaurants may only do deliveries and takeaways. Because (duh) we have to take our masks off to eat, and that’s not safe. Maybe it would be if more than 1% of the population had been vaccinated. Again, that’s for the politicians to yell about. Let’s hear from the men and women who are shell-shocked by this latest assault on their livelihoods.

“These next few weeks are going to be the hardest we have experienced,” said Scot Kirton of the award-winning La Colombe group which includes La Petite Colombe, Epice, Foxcroft and Protégé.

“Most restaurants have not been making money the past few months; we have just been scraping by and our reserves have now been depleted. Sunday night’s news is our worst nightmare come true for us and our staff, I am honestly speechless. There was no mention of relief by the president for our staff, and even if there was it would take months for them to pay it. I’m not sure what the future holds for myself and my staff, but we will fight to keep things going and make it through this one way or another, but its most certainly going to be our toughest period yet.”

Kirton feels this is the last nail in the coffin for many restaurants: “I just don’t see that many surviving this latest lockdown. The biggest problem for us is we don’t know if this is just going to be a two-week closure or if it could turn into weeks or months with limited trading and maybe with no alcohol, who knows what the government is thinking?”

La Colombe and Foxcroft At Home experiences will be available for delivery for dinners Mondays to Sundays, and for lunches on weekends. “I urge people who can afford to support their local eateries doing takeaways to please support them. If you don’t they may not be there at the end of this. They need your support now, way more than Woolworths does,” said Kirton.

Steenberg’s cellarmaster Elunda Basson said she is disappointed the wine industry is once again being hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have worked our way past three alcohol bans, and this fourth ban is another blow to my team and me. Fortunately we have an online shop that is well established, as well as a wine club of loyal wine enthusiasts who continue to support us through yet another ban on the sale of our much loved wine.  

“The impact it has on the industry, the lives it hurts and the momentum that is lost in the wine industry is devastating, but I am so privileged to lead a team that has the creativity, enthusiasm and passion to rise above this. We implore all wine enthusiasts to continue to buy wine online to support the industry through this very trying time.”

The announcement of moving to Level 4 was “absolutely devastating” for our industry, echoed Steenberg executive chef Kerry Kilpin. “I honestly never thought the government would close our doors again. To have absolutely no warning is the worst. Schools at least had three days to sort themselves out. This really is a terrible situation we find ourselves in again, never mind the wastage of food that takes place when a fully operational kitchen is stopped with immediate effect. Today our staff are having a field day eating oysters and fillet steaks as we make the most of it – I can’t stand to see food going into a bin!”

Bistro 1682 will close its doors for the duration of Level 4; Tryn will remain open serving takeaways and the Steenberg @ Home menu.

Dine at home with meals from Tryn at Steenberg. (Photo: Supplied)

Cheyne Morrisby – Cheyne’s, Himitsu, Lucky Bao, Mexicola Locale – has taken some heavy knocks during the pandemic, but he’s still standing, and taking a rather zen approach. “It’s a time when we group together as a team. Often things are taken for granted, and times like these are gentle reminders that we need to stop and reposition ourselves,” he said.

“If anything, it will have a positive effect in the long run. This is a long term survival attitude that we all need to adopt.”

On the whole, it’s been a long struggle for the industry, Morrisby said. “Some are equipped and some are not, that’s just life. It’s a natural evolution for businesses, especially the hospitality industry.”

During this current level of lockdown is where they show their strength and unity, he added. “We will pivot and push the boundaries to get our magic out there. So yes…delivery and takeaways – and maybe a few tricks up our sleeves if Level 4 continues beyond two weeks.” 

Smitten in Franschhoek opened in January 2021, and the staff hired had already suffered the previous waves as casualties of unemployment and retrenchment. “They’ve seen this horror movie before. No one needed or deserved a sequel,” said partner Imraan Vagar.

“We’re gallantly trying to maintain a positive outlook and attitude but there’s no denying that this decision by the current administration, which is notably broad, sweeping and not strategically targeted at hot-button regions as is the approach in other countries, has further demoralised an already battered and beleaguered industry, teetering on the brink,” he said. “I’m by character not the doomsayer type. In fact, I want so badly to be wrong in this regard. But if these restrictions extend beyond 14 days, I fear it would be the one-two punch and fatal body blow that will sound the death knell for the businesses that are barely limping towards that illusory finish line that keeps getting shunted further and further out of their view.”

For morale and mental health, the team at Smitten – Vagar’s partner is chef Chris Smit – will be maintaining a sense of humour and a forward-looking state of mind. “Smitten has always been about celebrating love, life and our appetite for good food. And even though we’re obligatorily closed for in-house dining, we’re still cooking and baking take away meals for in-store collections that are made with the love and generosity of spirit that animates our purpose and mission. One day at a time is how we choose to take it for now – with the hope that this too shall pass,” said Vagar.

Smitten chef Chris Smit with Nomsa Ngcwatywa (left) and Blessings Harare. (Photo: Imraan Vagar)

“It is devastating for Societi Bistro, but we remain optimistic about our future,” said owner Peter Weetman. “All our staff will remain employed and be paid in full, thanks to the loyal support of our regular guests who quickly adapt to the regulations, and embrace us by collecting takeaways from the restaurant, including our range of ready meals from our sister Café Societi.”

The faithful regulars can only do so much though.

“Those of us who were privileged enough to have received government secured loans through our banks had to pay these back since January 2021, so our cashflow is tight,” said Weetman. “We hope the financial institutions and government will re-look at this policy and perhaps adopt a percentage of turnover rather than a fixed monthly payment, as this large payment each month will really affect most of us being able to continue to trade and therefore welcome both local and foreign tourists in the future. 

“Tough decisions will need to be made by all of us – I myself have sold my home to protect my business and staff. Our thoughts also go to all of our suppliers, including the wine and liquor industry.”

Another Cape Town City Bowl stalwart, Rick’s Café Americain, moved from its long-time place in Park Road to Kloof Street, renovating for more than a year and investing a pile of money. It opened on October 8, 2020. “We started getting nice and busy and all our regulars found their way back to us,” said owner Géza Menko.

“Unfortunately the alcohol prohibition just before New Year made our turnover drop 30% and this just covered the reduced staff and electricity/water bill etc. We tried it for 10 days with an extended non-alcohol offering but the curfew and the prohibition was just too cruel. I had to let go all my loyal 30-plus staff, with the hope to be able to reopen.”

Rick’s did indeed reopen in February 2021, but the slide back to Level 3 in June 2021 along with earlier curfew – in winter – made it difficult to cover costs.

“But now on Level 4, this total shut down for restaurants is a disaster,” said Menko, who had to let his staff go for the second time in six months. Takeaways and collections are not Rick’s business but the idea may be revisited if this current lockdown extends beyond two weeks. “As a last resort to get at least some cash into the hands of my staff,” said Menko.

“All I can do now is to try to borrow money to be able to cover all payments coming my way this month. I will make it somehow with the help from my bank and family but not every restaurant is so lucky. I feel for my employees as there is no money at all coming from the government. I have staff members who are still waiting for their UIF money from last year.

“To be honest, it’s been made out during Cyril’s speech that all is our fault, but our beloved government wasted a whole year not preparing for another wave – not enough vaccines, no fixing or building hospitals, no hiring of nurses etc…too busy looting the public purse.

“Now over a million people didn’t go to work but the people making these decisions get paid! Sorry but that’s my view.”

The anger and frustration are understandable.

Clara Bubenzer owns Lebanese Bakery & Kitchen with Khaled El Alfy, and they are fortunate to have most of their business as takeaways already. “In that sense we hope to remain relatively busy. At the same time, people often come for a quick meal and then land up buying dinner or items as gifts. The lockdown will affect the total sales significantly. We will intend to keep all staff and maybe implement some forced leave. It’s all still quite new so I will chat to my crew and see what we can do as a team,” said Bubenzer. Being a Halaal establishment, the booze ban doesn’t affect her directly but her heart breaks for her friends with restaurants where wine is part of the experience, she said.

The cost of third party deliveries makes her blood boil, said Bubenzer. “Uber and Mr D taking up to 30% off us, for a shitty service with underpaid drivers! I am thinking that I will do deliveries myself for less cash and for a wider range. Maybe in a way this will open up another line for us – the delivery route. I am brainstorming a bunch of items to add to create more value for customers and pushing a one-stop for this type of cuisine. But another business offering frozen meals?”

The hospitality industry has been in a survival mode since the beginning of lockdown in 2020, commented Haute Cabrière MD Nick van Woerkom. “Some have not made it, and the reality is that those who just made it may need to make hard calls in the next few weeks. Sadly it is the most vulnerable, lowest paid staff that are most affected.” 

The Franschhoek winery and restaurant has made the decision to send its restaurant and tasting room staff on paid leave for the following two weeks. “The impact on staff who rely largely on service tips is severe and the impact on our business even worse,” said Van Woerkom. 

Giorgio Nava closed his 95 Keerom and Carne SA in October 2020, keeping Carne On Kloof and 95 At Parks open. “We were just getting our heads above the water at these two restaurants, just enough business to pay staff, suppliers, rent and a few other expenses. There was no profit but at least the doors were open and a few staff could survive; 95% of staff from my restaurants are still at home without any help. The last UIF (TERS) I received was October. We are still waiting for November, December, January, February and March. 

“From today with the new rules they make us drown again!” he said.”Yes Cyril, I can close but help us like any other decent country or government around the world. Is it possible you don’t understand how important the hospitality industry is in a country that lives with tourism?”

Like many others, Nava doesn’t think this shit show will last two weeks, but he hopes no more than two months. “I will be open for takeaway with ONE staff member, even if I know that is unprofitable, just to avoid staying at home to cry.” 

At the beginning of lockdown, Salushi sushi restaurant created a dish called Ramaphosa. “It spoke of the state of the nation at the time of the first lockdown – inside out, falling apart and crumbling, like the economy,” said owner Isaacs. “Ironically, it’s turned out to be really full of incredible flavour and textures and is one of our most popular items.”

Salushi sushi restaurant created a dish called Ramaphosa, which spoke of the state of the nation at the time of the first lockdown: inside out, falling apart and crumbling, like the economy. (Photo: Supplied)

Let’s hope diners keep ordering it for takeaway. “We have, over time, attracted a loyal following and offer 10% off to clients who ‘call and collect’.” His is by far the better option than the high commissions taken by third party delivery services, said Isaacs. “The model simply doesn’t work if this is to be the main source of revenue. I won’t be holding my breath, hoping for reduced fees from these players either. Inflating prices on these platforms is not an option for us as our prices do sit at the higher end of the scale and become unaffordable when inflated by 30%.

“It’s certainly not ideal, as we pride ourselves on the presentation of our cuisine and the in-house experience which is impossible to replicate in a box. Nonetheless, we remain optimistic and urge all other small restaurants not to get into a discounting and price war. We’ve been down that road and it simply lands up biting you back.” 

Le coin Français and Le chêne will be closed to use the time to re-energise, refocus and freshen menus, said chef Darren Badenhorst. “We also recently started a food delivery and takeaway portal, Food Order Franschhoek. It is a service that allows locals that find themselves in Franschhoek and in the surrounding areas to order fresh, hot meals from Ōku Asian Eatery, Tuk Tuk Microbrewery and Yama Sushi Emporium. Orders on Food Order Franschhoek can be collected at the restaurant or delivered to your door.”

Via Food Order Franschhoek, dishes from Ōku Asian Eatery, Tuk Tuk Microbrewery and Yama Sushi Emporium can be collected or delivered. (Photo: Supplied)

Using up the perishables was a priority this week at The Block House at Constantia Uitsig and Jonkershuis at Groot Constantia – staff meals, sales to friends, and for the soup kitchens started up during lockdown. “It’s a tough one this time, we really didn’t think we’d get back to this,” said partner Chris Coetzee. “I don’t think it will be two weeks, I think it will be at least six weeks. All our staff will be asked to take paid leave. 

“At Block House we will carry on doing a full takeaway menu this week to use up produce, via Mr D and collection. Next week we’ll set up a WhatsApp line and have a limited kick-arse takeaway menu of favourites like pork belly and chorizo pasta and burgers, samosas, things like that, available Tuesdays to Saturdays 12pm until 7pm. We’ll rotate staff so they can earn a bit of money. 

“Jonkershuis is terrible in winter so there’ll be no collections for takeaways. We will be open Saturdays and Sundays – weather permitting – so people can get something to eat and chill out on the estate – coffee, bacon and egg rolls, burgers, lots of pastries, sarmies…there will be very little turnover but we have to keep going. It’s incredibly hard to reinvent your business – again.” 

Tamsin Snyman – World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Tamsin Snyman Publishers, Plant-Based Creative – doesn’t own a restaurant but is very involved in the support and survival of a handful of them in her beloved Hout Bay, where she has lived for 40 years. 

“I have just come out of a management meeting with the Clay Café Hout Bay and the new Clay Café in the city. Collectively, they have 100 staff and are spending the entire day today encouraging some of them to take their paid leave now and the rest are being put onto a roster that will see them deep cleaning and cooking up fridge-fulls of food into soups for the less fortunate and send staff home with armfuls of food. Suppliers’ pending orders have been cancelled and today’s deliveries of items like 100kg of mozzarella, hundreds of eggs and gallons of milk will need to be repurposed.”

Once more we see the far-reaching impact of curtailed restaurant trading. It’s not only the chefs, line cooks, scullers, waiters and bartenders. It’s the suppliers of everything from lemons to laundry that are affected. 

“Simply turning a restaurant into a takeaway style establishment isn’t always possible. The Clay Café simply can’t do this as they are not prepared in terms of packing solutions and mobilising drivers without warning,” said Snyman.

“The powers that be are clearly people who have never started and run a restaurant. Forcing us to close without warning is catastrophic; especially deep into winter when customers are scarce anyway.”

Also part of the industry are event venues and cooking classes, such as The Kitchen Collective – a studio for shoots as well as interactive food evenings, often with some of Cape Town’s top chefs. It was all going so well but then… “Seven months later, the rug was pulled out from under our feet,” said owner Denise Levy. “Just like that. Closed down. We cancelled all planned events and sat down to rethink and reinvent ourselves. And we did. We came up with an incredible home delivery menu with our firm favourite dishes, and started production. We also became instant experts in Zoom classes – as everyone and his brother had become home chefs, right!” 

Things began to look up, with classes beginning again, for people eager to have fun and socialise at a safe distance. “More shoots. More events. A fabulous group of Chefs Warehouse chefs joined us to show off their talent to sold out bookings,” said Levy.

There were no profits; it was survival and the opportunity to create a few jobs. Levy thought everything would be all right. Until Sunday.

“For me, this is the end of my battle to keep this going, and the end of The Kitchen Collective,” she said. “It’s very very sad for the industry who so needs this venue, and for all those that have supported us over the past two years. It is sad, very sad, in a personal capacity too as I have tried to make a difference to the lives of as many people as I can. But I am done trying, in more ways that I can say, and I throw in the white towel.”

Levy may be down right now but she’ll regroup and return to her roots of Ginger & Lime, where it all began – food evenings in her home. From this starting point as well, Kim Jordan first ran Salt & Sage with Levy and just recently, set off on her own, hosting intimate dining experiences for groups of six to 16 guests.

“We are completely quiet. Quiet is being polite… dead is a little more accurate,” she said. “Combine third wave, Level 4 government restrictions (namely curfew and alcohol) and winter, and you look around reminiscing about the days when you used to be busy, used to be stressed, used to be tired with a fondness and nostalgia.” 

Salt & Sage hosted intimate dining and cooking experiences. (Photo: Supplied)

The reinstated ban is crippling an industry that works so hard to always give their best to serve everyone with passion, dedication and consistency, said Jordan. “The restaurant/hospitality industry seems underserved and overlooked by the government, despite the workforce it employs and the trickle-down economic effect as a whole. 

It is also making restaurateurs, owners, chefs, waiters feel very despondent and helpless. “Regardless of the financial toll and strain on everyone – the emotional one is something completely intangible but so much more soul-destroying.” 

The Restaurant Association of South Africa issued this statement: “We know that we are going through difficult times right now, I cannot believe what government has done to us once again, but regardless of what is happening we need you to be strong, we need you to keep fighting for your businesses and to do everything we can to keep our businesses and industry alive. 

“Wendy Alberts is doing everything from our side to work and consult with the Government, we have written a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa and we will do everything to try and get the industry opened as quickly as possible. We strongly believe that they will hear our pleas, we are South Africa’s most loved industry and as hard and stressful as what it is you need to remain strong and positive so we can have our lights back on soon welcoming patrons to sit down and to come dine with their beautiful families in our beautiful restaurants with our passionate staff.” 

In the meantime, I urge anyone who can afford to, to order a takeaway and support their favourite restaurants – while they’re still open. DM/TGIFood

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  • Spare a thought for us Farmers that deliver to the Restaurants too, I had one crop ready for delivery and the second crop is in the Aquaponics System. The first crop is rapidly deteriorating and will go to the organic pig farm down the road. What a waste of money and food.

  • If you think the restaurant business is in a bad way, its nothing compared to the live performance sector – theatres, music, etc