TGIFOOD

SIT DON’T STAY

Restaurant industry ‘walking a tightrope over a deep ravine’

Newly opened Yiayia’s Table has a strong delivery and takeaway element, but welcomes sit-down customers too. (Photo: Supplied)

After two weeks of takeaways only, restaurants have a reprieve and can welcome sit-down diners. While it’s a relief for many, harsh regulations that still outlaw alcohol limit the number of customers, and send them home at 8pm in time for curfew, it’s a double-edged sword.

 

The writer supports Little Brinks, whose vision is to ensure every child and baby has a place of safety, food and clothing.

This time two weeks ago – July 2, 2021 – restaurants were reeling from the shock of lockdown changing to Adjusted Level 4, which brought with it the immediate banning of alcohol sales, an earlier curfew and no sit-down dining. On Sunday, July 11, 2021 the President reviewed the regulations as promised. There were some sighs of relief but it’s nowhere near what the industry needs to survive.

Since March 2020, restaurants have been flung hither and thither, open, closed, sit-down with limited numbers, no sit-down, alcohol then no alcohol, alcohol permitted for off-sales, and ever-earlier curfews which shave an hour or more off trading times. Add to this a sizable number of potential diners who, even when allowed to partake of a meal sitting on a chair at a table inside, choose rather to stay at home in their family bubbles, and you only begin to have an inkling of what it’s like for them. Not to forget the staff who have lost their income with all this toing and froing like the cha cha with steps forward and sideways and, worst of all, backwards.

As it stands today, restaurants may welcome sit-down diners, appropriately distanced (no more than 50 at a time, and if the venue is smaller, 50% of capacity), until 8pm, with not so much as a sip of wine. Better than takeaways only? Yes, for some. But intimate places like Dahlia on Regent in Sea Point, being able to cater for only 12 diners at a time under these rules, the costs of operating outweigh any possible profit, and the decision is made to stay closed. I happened to be searching for somewhere to eat out in Kloof Street this week, and it was disheartening to see “temporarily closed” next to several names. Bitter experience has taught me that temporary often extends to permanent.

Just for “fun” at the time of writing there were widespread taxi strikes and violence, preventing people from getting to work.

We’ve covered these tribulations extensively over the last nearly 18 months but each time, more layers are peeled back, like a Shrek onion, and each time it gets more difficult and more heartbreaking.

Of the restaurateurs I approached for comment, Julie Huckle of Pirates Steakhouse & Pub in Plumstead said, “Quite honestly I was not going to put anything together as I am quite frankly exhausted. As restaurateurs, we are walking a tightrope over a deep ravine and the daily struggle to stay on it is taking its toll. I find myself randomly on the brink of tears daily, but I will continue to fight, for our business, for my family, for my staff and for their families.”

Pirates has reopened for sit-down: “We have to for our sanity and to support our staff,” said Huckle. “We are extremely grateful the NCCC saw value in what we had to say and responded accordingly. There is, however, a long way to go. 

“In the past year, we have been shut down, reopened, reinvented ourselves, been shut again and once again have to start again, with no clear view of the future. With 50% capacity, alcohol sales and a more normal curfew of midnight, we were able to reach only 50% of projected figures for the year; with each subsequent increase in curfew the figures dropped. Takeaway business only brings in 10%, which is definitely not sustainable and opening without alcohol and a strict curfew leaves us sitting at 20% of projected turnover. This too will not be sustainable for more than the anticipated two weeks. 

“We are a family owned business that has been operating in the Plumstead area of Cape Town for 30 years. Our clientele are responsible mature adults, who are mindful of Covid protocols, but would dearly love to have a glass of wine with their steak.”

Me. She’s talking about me; I am a Pirates client, and I like a glass of red with my rump bites (lovely fatty little grilled morsels).

“On the mask issue, which is what they seem to hang us out to dry on, people are social beings, you will not stop them from being such,” continued Huckle. “We believe that coming out to eat in our restaurant is far safer than going for dinner at friends. With us they get their temperatures taken before entry, hands are sanitised, they wear a mask when not at their table and they are seated at least 2m minimum from the next table in a properly ventilated environment at a proper distance between themselves. 

“In a private home there are little to no Covid protocols being adhered to and we believe that that is where the Covid is spread. We have not had a single Covid query directed at us, nor have any of my staff contracted Covid, which in itself tells a story and yet we have been labelled as a dangerous place to go to. The mind boggles.”

Caffe Villagio is a Mediterranean restaurant (serving breakfast and lunch), function venue and catering company which has been trading for 15 years in Sable Square, Milnerton. It’s owned by husband and wife Chris and Lilia Bosmos; Lilia heads the kitchen and supervises the kitchen team. Chris runs front-of-house and PR.

Caffe Villagio is a Mediterranean restaurant which has been trading for 15 years in Sable Square, Milnerton. (Photo: Supplied)

“The strict measures came as a great surprise to us and we lost a lot of income. Delivery and takeaways are not a viable option in terms of cost. The recent lockdown is a massive blow to our recovery (from last year’s lockdown), our trade and to our stabilisation,” said Lilia Bosmos.

Restaurants are subject to closure by the government at any time, without warning, as it tries to deal with curbing the pandemic and all its variants, she said. “This makes survival extraordinary, not to mention it is almost impossible to plan with no indication of growth. These intrusive and heavy restrictions have depleted our resources. The yo-yo effect of booking functions just to have them cancelled, or no orders coming in for platters, or no customers sitting down to eat in the restaurant is devastating. There is no aid from the government, no more payment holidays, no assistance of any kind.”

The Bosmoses do feel relieved they can at least host sit-down customers, but are still very far away from where we should be regarding normal trade, said Lilia. “Some days it all seems very overwhelming. Some days we feel angry and concerned. Some days are good. But, we have always been positive and tried to make the best of every situation, good or bad over the 15 years that we have been in trade. Even though the circumstances we find ourselves in today are unprecedented, we still have to find ways to push forward and not give up.”

On their website, Matteo Santini and Maurizio Carlo describe themselves as “two crazy Italians” who have brought their Mamma’s dishes to Cape Town at Woodlands Eatery. Like everyone else, lockdown has affected them “big time” in terms of staff having to be retrenched, or leaving for other jobs. “It destabilised our business,” said Santini.

“We’ve been lucky most of our food – pizzas, pastas, salads and burgers – are all suitable for takeaway, which we did before, so although we were forced to adjust, it was not fully reinvented. It’s challenging all the way through the levels – five, four, three, two, then three and now four again. It’s been a rollercoaster and it’s difficult every couple of months to reinvent yourself, and to try to stay in line, of course, with the regulations and restrictions.”

Not being able to serve alcohol is one of the biggest impacts on business, said Santini, pointing out it accounts for 40 to 50% of a restaurant’s income, sometimes more. He’s grateful, however, for loyal locals who support Woodlands Eatery, and understand if it’s “full” one night, they come back the next. 

“The big question mark is the uncertainty of what will happen in two weeks’ time. It’s difficult to plan. We are living and trading day by day, and trying our best to keep our food fresh to our high standards, which becomes more and more complicated when there are changes.”

Sebastian Daniels of Ground Culture. (Photo: Supplied)

Sebastian Daniels is the founder of Ground Culture, which comprises an online store, a café in Observatory and all its products are available on Uber Eats. “Everything we sell is locally sourced, with a big selection of our products coming from Khayelitsha.

“The biggest part of our business lies in our café – the best coffee, bagels and paninis in town, as well as a large selection of deli products – so this lockdown has affected us massively,” he said. “Initially with the café closing for sit-downs we lost about 50% of our business. This has meant we’ve had to be incredibly innovative. In order to adapt to the times, we’ve worked on our Uber Eats, offering specials and using the advertising campaign to find new customers. However, Uber Eats takes a large chunk of commission so it means we’re less profitable than before. 

“Looking into the future, we know the road is going to be littered with obstacles and detours but we just have to keep adapting. We’re focusing on finding customers online and keeping ones that come in loyal. While it’s a crazy time to be in business, we know that if we last the test of time, we’ll be in a great place coming out of the Covid pandemic. 

“It’s tough times for South Africa, but we believe that if we can hold on, we can inspire change in our country. This is just the beginning for us and we can’t wait to keep developing our brand to capitalise on the opportunities that present themselves during the pandemic.” 

Ground Culture in Observatory. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s truly wonderful to encounter such hope, positivity and tenacity. You need all that in abundance to have opened a new restaurant in the past year or so. The Parolis family has celebrated their matriarch Elli by converting what was once the family butchery into a bakery and coffee shop, Yiayia’s Table, in Mowbray. Yiayia is Greek for grandmother.

“Being established during the lockdown period, we took into account the many restrictions that have affected the restaurant industry when focusing on our business model,” said owner Dimitri Parolis. “In doing this, we’d hoped that going forward future restrictions imposed of a similar nature would not affect us.

“We obviously had to close for sit-in servings; however we noticed the takeaway part of the business is still popular and customers are coming in for their regular orders to go. We very quickly adjusted the business to offer free deliveries within a 5km radius from the store for orders of R100 and more. We also began offering a ‘Heat & Eat at Home’ option, where our spiral pies can be purchased in a frozen two-pack and cooked in the oven.

“As uncertain as these times are for most businesses, we are remaining focused on the quality of our offering and our story, as well as the continuous high standards of good service we strive to achieve. We will keep adapting to the new restrictions and do what we can to continue operating.

Now that sit-downs have been reintroduced we are looking at some new menu options for breakfast and lunch.

“We have had to learn to adapt and reinvent ourselves to continue trading in a time of Covid-19 and we will continue to do so.”

Dimitri Parolis, owner of Yiayia’s Table. (Photo: Supplied)

At Husk in Woodstock you can get a pizza with pineapple. Italians can swoon in rage at this if they want to but I am unapologetically in the camp that favours it. It’s quite simply the combination of sweet and salty, which enhance each other. There’s science to back it up, go ahead and Google. “Word on the street is that our wood fired oven pizzas are some of the best people have tasted,” said chef and co-owner (with wife Marelise) Gerhard van der Walt, proudly.

What were they thinking, opening a new place in May 2021, I wanted to know. “Well there isn’t really a perfect time to open a business, is there?” laughed Gerhard. “I opened a restaurant in Pretoria four months before Covid, in 2019, which sadly I had to close down. The moment my wife said in hard lockdown last year, let’s move to Cape Town and open a restaurant there, I was on the first flight just after my son’s first birthday. The dream of a restaurant is my passion and my calling. I have been a chef for 12 years now and have worked at awesome restaurants, gaining experience and learning every step of the way.” 

This is what we need to remember: being in the restaurant industry isn’t merely a job; as Van Der Walt says, it’s a calling. Fourteen hours on your feet every day, in hot kitchens, getting cut and burned (not on purpose unless you once worked with MasterChef Australia judge Jock Zonfrillo), sweating over pots and pans is not everyone’s idea of fun, so may we take a moment of silent gratitude for those who do it willingly every night and then come back and do it all again?

“Husk is a rustic fine dining restaurant although we are trying to steer away from the phrase fine dining because we do not want to be labelled as just a fine dining restaurant,” clarified Van Der Walt. “We bake fresh sourdoughs and ciabattas daily and pride ourselves in our ever-changing menu from starters right through to our desserts.

“Since we opened our doors two months ago we have built extremely good relationships with customers, suppliers etc. The restaurant, food and our employees exceeded our expectations – our employees became our family. When the President announced we can only do takeaways it was hard to hear, because we are not really a takeaway restaurant; all plates come back clean to the kitchen,” he winked, “but we lifted our heads, planned and changed our menu accordingly to do takeaways and try to survive to the best of our abilities. We didn’t have a choice, we needed to fight and see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

“No one can predict the future. So yes, we are nervous about what it holds, but at the same time we are excited and thankful for everyone that supports us and all the relationships we have built. We have to stay positive.”

Yes. Yes we do. It’s not how many times you get knocked down that counts, it’s how many times you get back up. DM/TGIFood

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