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BUSINESS MAVERICK 168

Practical pivots: How the restaurant industry can band together to weather the pandemic storm

The restrictions relating to the Covid-19 pandemic have severely affected the restaurant and food industry, but experts say there are ways for it to learn and evolve, and not just adapt.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Both smaller establishments and bigger restaurant chains have been affected, with many having to close, or were hit in different ways, depending on their business structure, size and location, Maps Maponyane, media personality and owner of Buns Out, said during a webinar hosted by the McCain Foodservice Solution’s Insiders Club. It looked at how the hospitality industry could react and survive.

“We’ve obviously had to all have this crash course in running a restaurant during a pandemic,” said Maponyane, adding that restaurateurs have been looking for silver linings in how to grow during this frightening time.

“Covid was unforgiving – unforgiving from a health perspective and unforgiving from a business perspective, but I think it [also] highlighted weaknesses and gaps in businesses,” said Grace Harding, the CEO of seafood restaurant chain Ocean Basket.

She said that sit-down restaurants had been lagging behind when it came to adopting technology or being innovative and efficient, but the pandemic has pushed them to become smarter and more strategic.

Harding also cautioned, however, that that should not come at the expense of the unique parts of the industry that would hopefully recover and keep changing.

“Be very, very careful of the word adapt. It could cause a distraction of a business model that works because a sit-down restaurant will always be needed.”

Daniel Goldberg, co-founder of Bridgement, a small business financing company, said restaurants were being squeezed from all sides financially, whether that was pressure from banks, suppliers or lower customer spend.

Many of the Covid-related payment holidays, relief programmes and emergency funds that supported restaurants in the earlier days of the pandemic have also ended.

“I think funding can be an answer, but it is not the [only] answer,” said Goldberg.

He said additional funding would be helpful if, for instance, there was a plan in place to turn the business around, and it required the bridging of a short-term gap in cash flow.

Bridgement, he said, looked at factors such as a business’s track record and existing financial obligations to determine if they would be a good fit. If the restaurant was performing badly and operating at a loss, however, funding would be a bad route to take. “There’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all answer to that.”

Tessa Purdon, head of content at websites Food24 and EatOut, said they had witnessed various “practical pivots”. “We’ve definitely seen that, for sit-down restaurants, the concept of takeaway and delivery has become crucial. So it’s about amending or creating dishes that are suitable for that format.”

They’re also seeing smaller menus, fewer staff members and reduced inventory levels. Purdon said that didn’t mean losing what the restaurant brand stood for, but rather a focus on and strengthening of key signature offerings.

She also advised that having an accessible, even if not extensive, online presence has become particularly important.

“Covid-19 has obviously definitely accelerated the whole move towards digital ways of operating,” said Purdon. “It’s also thinking a little bit outside the box about what other opportunities online there might be.”

One significant way the industry was weathering the pandemic storm was by sticking together.

“The wonderful thing about the pandemic is that there is more realisation that we have to be healthy as a community,” said Harding.

Catharina Bester, marketing manager of McCain Foods SA, said the industry, from suppliers through to restaurants, had banded together: “I think we all are aiming for the same thing and some of those boundaries have been broken down.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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