How COVID-19 has affected restaurant menus

Restaurants have been open for a while now – and many of us have dipped our toes into this new way of dining – but the pandemic will have a lasting effect on eating out. We’ve already seen most restaurants doing away with physical menus, opting for an online menu on customers’ phones or a menu board. But how have the dishes on the menu been affected? We chatted to some local chefs to find out.

Though the number of diners eating out is slowly increasing, restaurants are certainly aware that they aren’t dealing with an influx of guests just yet. This means that menus need to walk the fine line between catering to what guests want while ensuring there’s no waste. As a result, many restaurants have decreased or downsized their menus. Nic Haarhoff, owner of El Burro Taqueria in Cape Town, says that the decision to serve a smaller menu simply comes down to volume. “When you have full restaurants with a consistently high turnover, it’s easier to maintain a larger menu,” he says. “Currently, we’re also working with a reduced kitchen team, so to account for that and fewer guests, we’ve only got about 20 items on the menu.” Nic says his focus is to ensure freshness – a smaller menu means they’re more likely to sell out of an item and not have to carry it over to the next day.

El Burro Taqueria name

Kyle Knight, co-owner of The Shop in Sea Point, echoes this: “We’ve always been known for having something for everyone, but with COVID, we’ve had to make sure our menus make sense for us and the customers.” He continues: “We’ve minimised our menu slightly so that we’re not sitting with leftover produce – it’s pointless holding onto stock at the moment.” This means, for example, there’s one cut of steak on the menu, instead of their usual two. El Burro’s Nic agrees: “I simply can’t afford to waste anything right now, so I’d rather offer fewer items and know that I’ll sell out.”

Another menu-planning consideration is making cautious diners feel comfortable and welcome again. Cynthia Rivera, co-owner of Mulberry & Prince, said that she wanted to design a menu centred around comfort. “We decided to serve comfort food because everyone needed it and it was the kind of food that we were craving.” Ryan Cole, head chef and co-owner of Salsify, told us that he also wanted a menu that appealed more to locals than ever before. “We’ve created a small four-course menu that changes every two weeks, priced with the local market in mind.” The accessible menu means locals can come more often while still feeling like it’s an occasion to eat out.

The slow move towards occasion eating might feel otherworldly but Gina Neilson, who owns 9th Avenue Waterside in Durban, says that dealing with these restrictions has had one positive effect. “Because of social distancing, we’re taking fewer guests, which means we can do our tasting menu again,” says Gina, “so that’s been fun having it back.”

Despite a return to something resembling normalcy, many businesses are still operating on a skeleton crew and the restaurant supply chain has been no different. Many suppliers have put in place minimum order limits to ensure their costs are fully covered and protected, while often offering fewer deliveries than they previously did. Restaurants have found ways to make this work, too. “You do what you have to do,” says Kyle again. “We worked around the minimum spend issue by teaming up with other nearby restaurants and splitting the costs between us so everyone could get what they need.”

Mulberry & Prince’s Cynthia says they also ensured their menu was easily adaptable in case they couldn’t get hold of something from a supplier. “In the early days of lockdown, there were some basics that suppliers were struggling to get hold of,” she says, and a flexible menu was the easiest way to safeguard against this. 9th Avenue’s Gina says they’ve been using ingredients in different ways: “We used the three days before lockdown to pickle, cure, make chutneys and kimchi to preserve all of our fresh produce. Now we have all these wonderful products to use, so our menu is very different – our cocktail lounge has a whole new menu because of lockdown.”

All in all, restaurants are doing all they can to ensure their menus feature your favourite dishes are made with the freshest ingredients. But if you don’t see your stock standard available, remember to be kind and patient with the restaurant staff. And, who knows, maybe you’ll find a new favourite!

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