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How COVID closed The Kitchen: An account by Karen Dudley

When I closed The Kitchen a week before the National Lockdown, I had no idea how the consequences of the pandemic would play out; the unfolding devastation. Level 5 had the calm of shock and helplessness; there was not much we could know or do.

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Dear friends, it is time for us to close The Kitchen. I feel an immense sadness. The Kitchen has been a sanctuary for many, a merting place too – a place for fun and festivity and deliciousness. I want to honour our community. Gosh, I love you all. And i have loved loving you and serving you. It has been the greatest joy. Because we have been established for so many years, we have old friends, new friends, servers and cooks from so many seasons. All have contributed to this place of connection and love. Do you remember that feeling? Cherish it as we do. I would love to say a special thank you to all the friends who contributed to our staff rescue fund. Your generosity has allowed me to drip funds to my staff inbetween the long waits for UIF funding and for our Malawian snd Zimbabwean workers who do not receive UIF benefits. They are so grateful to.you all. (you can still donate via the link in our bio) The real intellectual and creative value of The Kitchen lives in the bodies of the cooks who together make something delicious with devotion, not so much in bricks and mortar. The real value and legacy is in our relationships and our ability to innovate for something better and kinder than before.

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But there has never been real rest for me in this time. All my 14 staff are breadwinners. I know that without an income, some would be desperate and even hungry. The immense kindness of our community of customers and of collaboration with restaurant friends has brought donations to keep some money coming through for our Kitchen team. The UIF TERS (Unemployment Insurance Fund’s Temporary Employee Relief Scheme) has made payments for two months thus far. This is a blessing, but not enough to keep landlords at bay in neighbourhoods that are becoming increasingly fearful and desperate.

I did not take the decision to close my restaurant lightly.

I ran through the possibilities. We were caterers, couldn’t we do deliveries? We tried this for a week and it became clear that for us – dependent as we were on feeding 100 to 150 people a day – we would never be able to cover costs with the orders (deliveries from Higgovale to Kirstenhof) we could manage.

The bills for monthly expenses did not stop. The rent bill, even with a 25% discount, left us with an insurmountable debt, especially as the months dragged on. That bill alone made me realise that we would not be able to recover in a completely changed market. I knew well how tight the margins had become: the rising costs of the last two years; the struggle to tighten our cost of goods and to shrink our expenses. There was no cushion to keep us going for an indeterminate number of months. We needed our queues at lunchtime because we needed to sell a lot of Love sandwiches and salads, plus do a few catered lunch events a day, just to cover our costs!

The counter at The Kitchen in Woodstock. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

With the announcement of the closure of my shop and handing in my notice to my landlord, the triage of termination began: trying to end contracts and secure payment holidays on insurance premiums. Telkom’s inbox, too full, could not receive my cancellation document and settlement. Do I keep my van or sell it? I began the urgent work of selling my assets: fridges and stainless-steel tables, my vintage shop fittings, pictures and chairs – all to try and cover expenses. There was talk of help from various institutions but as I was already facing debt, help in terms of loans was the last thing I needed.

It became clear by May that without a vaccine, restaurants like ours – dependent on volume and bustle – would not be able to operate as before. We were a Level 0 business! Ours was a destination restaurant. In one sweep of disaster, we lost most of our trade: no more visitors from abroad. No more local travellers. No more production company lunches to cater. And all the surrounding businesses much reduced in number, with many customers now working from home indefinitely.

 

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Food from a restaurant does not come out of a vacuum. It comes from a team of people (prep staff, cooks, cleaners, cashiers) who come from Khayelitsha, Delft, Mitchells Plain, Atlantis [and more]. The cost to their safety is enormous. We love to cook and we love to serve. But we must be confident that we can pay staff. It also costs money to stock a cold room and bring in produce.

As South Africans, we are tremendously resilient. We are resourceful. We know how to work! We are tenacious. We believe that everything will be alright in the end so long as we apply ourselves, our labour being our virtue.

But now is a time for extra cleverness, collaboration, conversation, a collation of learnings and, most of all, imagination. As restauranteurs, we need to ask: do we really need to offer so much choice? Can we be more considered with our choice of producers and farmers? How can we price our food better? We want better wages and more security for our staff. This needs to be costed into our prices along with packaging and good olive oil, etc. We need to grow staff who are skilled and versatile so that our businesses are agile. We cannot be dependent on having full restaurants every day and night.

What we have seen is that restaurants have communities around them and that the industry employs many thousands of workers. Working in a kitchen requires a particular kind of tenacity and work ethic, one that chefs, line cooks and cleaners understand as a brigade, a family. Restaurants are harbours of culture, where we celebrate the joys of true hospitality – the pleasure of sharing something delicious at a table with laughter and conversation. These are institutions that need support – in the form of technology, industry knowledge and business.

Food is at the forefront of how we will find solutions that might be kinder and better for all. We have the choice, in Arundhati Roy’s now-famous quote, “to break with the past and imagine our world anew”. I have to say that I want a world in which I can feed many people with food that is delicious, nourishing and good.

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