How coronavirus is killing our restaurant industry one cough at a time

If our little restaurant isn’t 80% full every night, we fold,” says the team from Farro in a heartfelt post on Instagram. “We have 18 covers on the book this week. The whole week. That’s one table per night. And it’s a very, very difficult place to be.”


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LOVE & HOSPITALITY IN THE TIME OF CORONA (our Covid-19 message) We are open. We probably shouldn’t be. We feel it is our social and moral responsibility to close our doors and let this health crisis pass. We want to do our part in flattening the curve. We’re trying to figure this out and have sent it out to the powers that be to allow us to close our doors and bunker down and help us do this financially. We salute our friends who are managing to do so. Unfortunately at Farro, we are on a knife edge, and were so long before the words ‘Pandemic’ were uttered. (Thanks Eskom, thanks inflation, thanks skyrocketing food costs) Due to this, we don’t have any reserves. Our bones are exposed and it’ll take only the flu to bring us down. If our little restaurant isn’t 80% full every night, we fold. We have 18 covers on the book this week. The whole week. That’s one table, per night. And it’s a very, very difficult place to be, because we need you to come here. We need you to eat. We need you to help us pay our staff and our rent. But we also want you to stay home. To stay safe. To flatten the curve and get this virus the hell out of our lives. Where do we go from here? . For now, until the powers that be tell us otherwise, these are our measures at Farro to promote safety. Tables have been removed in order to maintain social distancing. Only 2 staff on the floor per dinner shift. All staff wash hands with Anti-bac soap regularly. Alcohol hand sanitiser is used frequently and available for customer use. Surfaces are santised frequently. Salt pots removed from tables. If staff are sick, we ask them to stay at home. If customers are sick, we ask them to stay home too. Please call ahead to cancel your booking. No shows are prevelant in Joburg and crippling at the best of times. Don’t be a dick. Don’t turn up as a 2 if you were booked as a 4. Because we are restricting our covers, every person counts. We are a very clean restaurant, we always have been, but we’ve gone into overdrive. . We are watching our colleagues & friends around the world in hospitality crumble. If you value us, please support us. We cannot weather this storm without you.

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The much-loved Illovo establishment is among thousands of restaurants that, in the matter of a few days, are facing serious financial challenges. The spread of COVID-19 and reactions from lawmakers and the public has meant the travel and hospitality industry are taking a huge knock.

Restaurants are inherently places of social gathering while that’s a positive in normal circumstances, at the moment we are being advised to avoid them. But, unlike in other industries, a WFH (work from home) approach is simply not an option. You can’t Skype in for a meal. When you reduce it down to the facts, two things are certain: people need to eat and people need money to buy food to eat. The coronavirus is a deadly threat to both.

Fortunately the South African government has not yet called for the closure of all restaurants, but on 18 March a new state law came into effect as part of the Disaster Management Act that says all on-consumption premises selling alcohol are not allowed to have more than 50 people at the same time or must be closed with immediate effect. (Read carefully, it’s a confusing restriction that leaves room for many grey areas and questions Eat Out is currently consulting a liquor law expert who will soon clarify in more detail.)

There are, however, a number of chefs and restaurateurs that have already made the decision to close their doors for the time being. The team at Clarke’s Bar and Dining Room, a (usually) busy restaurant on Cape Town’s Bree Street, told Eat Out, “We’ve closed our doors, for now, to come up with a lasting plan that will get us through the inevitably dark coming months. We’re in a desperate brainstorm to figure out how to best move forward. Our main focus is to keep our team healthy and paid for the next few months.”

Chef and restaurateur Luke Dale Roberts has closed all five of his restaurants. “A great percentage of our clientele are travellers from around the globe and as such, it is best that we temporarily close shop and do our part in stemming the current health crisis,” says the chef.

This approach must be applauded, but not all those in the service industry have the same stance. Weighing up the risks, and making the decision they feel to be in the best interests of their community, staff and families is a heart-wrenching thing to do, especially when there is no real support structure available to them.

Chef Matt Manning and his team at Grub & Vine.

“We are hoping now, with this new government-mandated 6pm closure,  there will be some form of support or relief for restaurants and bars,” says chef Matt Manning of
Grub & Vine, who has kept his restaurant open following stringent sanitation practises.

“We took the business decision to keep trading in line with the information made available to us on Sunday night. On the one hand, we realise the devastating impact if the virus were to spread, particularly with South Africa having an overburdened healthcare system. And on the other hand, we recognise our responsibility as an employer, given our already-teetering economy. The number of taxpayers is disproportionate to our population, and employment already sits at 30%. If businesses were to close, the impact on the economy would be devastating.”

Are there any answers?

Matt says that mandating freezes on monthly rental payments would be helpful, as well as government assistance with payment of staff salaries so that they are retained. A small bit of good news is that the Department of Small Business Development says it will provide a R1 billion support package to assist small, micro and medium-sized businesses* that produce high-demand consumer items. Restaurants and the hospitality industry need this sort of initiative, too. This is the time for financial institutions to stand up and assist economic sectors that are so disastrously affected by this pandemic. Yes, diners can still support restaurants in different ways than before, but it might not be enough to save them.

We’re all trying to figure our way through this unprecedented pandemic and searching for ways of moving forward with a solution-focused mindset.

If you want to be heard, sign this petition that calls for the South African government to subsidise the wages of workers in small businesses.

*If you employ 200 people or less and generate less than R10 million a year in revenue, you are a small business!

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