Balancing act: how restaurant staff navigate the stress and strain of a busy season


For most people, the festive season is one to be merry, spend time with friends and family, and hopefully eat scrumptious meals. But, for those behind the bar and kitchen doors, making this time cheerful for everyone else can take a toll. Restaurant chefs from around the country explain how the most stressful time of the year affects their staff, and how they care for them.

“In the customer service industry, you’re never allowed to have a bad day. Except, you do. We all do.” These words from an emotive social media post struck a chord with many in the restaurant industry and sparked a wider conversation. In the post, the team of Farro restaurant in the Overberg explained how strained their staff were during the festive season, and that they were going to take the unusual step of closing their doors for a day in January.


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Navigating seasonal fluctuations

“I understand that the people are in town for two to three weeks of the year, but we’re there every week of the year and we have to make sure that our staff are fine all year round as opposed to just in that month when things really kick off,” says Alex Windebank, head chef and co-owner of Farro.

He explains that while they are extremely grateful for the busy season as a small, fairly remote restaurant, they wanted to explain why his team have to put certain boundaries in place. For example, this year they stuck to a cap of how many tables they could seat in a day, which did make some walk-in customers unhappy, yet protected the staff.  “Those knock-on effects are that if you push your staff every day, eventually there’ll be a break which we don’t want to do,” Alex says.

One of the serious considerations for a family-run restaurant off the beaten path like Farro is to balance the yearly fluctuations. While demand might be high in summer, the area is often quiet during winter, making it harder to keep staff busy and make a good turnover. In fact, Farro had to close for six weeks this year because of flood damage, which Alex says they are still trying to make up for. Yet, to balance this out by expanding staff and operations in summer is difficult and possibly unsustainable.

“The one thing that we don’t do at Farro is to just bulk up with nondescript, seasonal staff because when you’re trying to give a certain level and a certain standard of food and service, it’s very difficult just to throw in seasonal people who don’t know that standard and haven’t been trained to that point,” he says.

Alex admits that in trying to protect his wider staff, he and his sous chef took many extra hours on themselves, often coming in from 4am. He tried to ensure that staff wouldn’t stay too late at the restaurant and would get some days off, even if this was less than in other parts of the year. “There is obviously a drain on the staff. But we try as much as possible to balance that with them getting time to recuperate.”

At the end of the year, everyone is absolutely shattered, exhausted and kind of waiting for that little bit of December leave,” says Jes Doveton, the business owner and executive chef of Acid Food & Wine Bar. While Johannesburg does not have as big of a tourist influx as other areas, restaurant staff there must also push to remain engaged and balanced.

Jes explains that not only do they have a lot more private functions to take care of, but they also use this time of year to experiment with new formats. In 2023, she did several pop-ups, including in Cape Town and the Swartland, and hopes to do more. “I think that’s something we’ll look at doing every year, and maybe bringing down some staff, which would be quite a fun excursion and get people inspired.”

Shifting perspectives and rethinking industry norms

She says that it’s a constant but doable task to keep hours regulated and the staff rested during this time, but wishes more work-life balance for chefs across the industry.

Another key aspect is planning out everything from stock lists and staff rosters well and communicating this. Lucas Carstens, head chef at Cavalli in Stellenbosch, says, “I communicate way before the busy time starts about what is coming and what to expect.”

He says that it’s important to keep morale up and make the kitchen a healthy environment where staff are working well together. “I found that the team feeds from my energy, so I try to stay as positive and energetic as possible. I make a lot of jokes and we all have fun; we all respect each other. We play some tunes in the prep kitchen because music helps a lot with a lekker vibe in the kitchen.”

“I believe a successful restaurant in today’s world needs to have a very strong emphasis on family and comradery within the business,” says Freddie Dias of Sejour and Sebule in Johannesburg.

He had just opened his new spot in Melrose Arch in November, getting little time to find his feet, but they managed the festive rush by shifting work around a little. They changed their opening hours somewhat, closed on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, and even did a Secret Santa gift-giving for staff for a little festive cheer.

“This is a tough and stressful industry to work in, but I firmly believe that we have to try not to make it harder than it already is,” Freddie says.

He mentions that rates of mental health strain, depression and anxiety are incredibly high in the industry, and that change must happen. “The old-school thinking, that it’s hospitality and this is just how it goes, is not good enough anymore and is also obviously not sustainable,” he says.

Chefs and restaurateurs around the country have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the festive season, appreciating its buzz but carefully balancing the strain on staff. As Freddie says, “I love this industry and it is hard. There is no escaping that, but we have to be more compassionate and caring, otherwise, there won’t be an industry left.”


Feature image: Unsplash

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