2022 is here and we’re still riding out the waves of the Covid-19 pandemic two years on. But the resilience of the restaurant industry continues to shine through. There are new restaurants opening and others re-opening or expanding, which is exciting and uplifting.
The fact that President Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t impose a harsh lockdown during the festive season, encouraging more people to get vaccinated amidst the surge of the Omicron variant, made a significant difference. And as we settle into 2022, there’s a renewed sense of hope among restaurant workers. Looking back at 2021, there’s lots to celebrate too.
“My favourite moment for 2021 was surviving the year!” says Chef Ryan Cole of Salsify in Cape Town. “It’s great to see a normality returning and restaurants re-opening and thriving.”
For Katlego Mathobela, sommelier at Saint Restaurant, the Champagne Day celebrations and the opening of Zioux are among her top moments of 2021.
“We are grateful and blessed that all our loyal customers came out and gave us their full support, which of course drives us to always give the best service,” Katlego says.
Séjour at Houghton Hotel in Johannesburg is one of the fairly new restaurants that opened in 2020. Being recognised was a major boost for head chef, Freddie Dias. “The highlight of 2021 for me was when Séjour was voted best restaurant in Restaurant Week SA. That helped a lot in terms of getting awareness around the restaurant,” says the chef.
Many of the struggles and challenges of 2021 centred around the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic – from the different variants to the imposed curfews and harsher lockdowns. The effects were hard with restaurants such as Séjour being forced to close for two months. When restaurants close, the livelihood of its workers is impacted.
“Finances became the primary concern in 2020 and 2021! A pandemic is unexpected and unpredictable. With challenges like economic instability and political tension, finances can be managed and planned for – not the case here. As a mother, it is hard being optimistic when you’re running on empty,” says Sithembile Ngcobo, a waitress at The Chefs’ Table in Durban.
George Hunter is the head barman at Zioux, a new bar and restaurant by Chef David Higgs, which opened in 2021. He says: “Even though the restrictions were eased in 2021, it created a strange sense of anticipation (when will the next ban come…?). In some instances, the border restrictions also impacted our ability to import certain products – either delaying the imports or making the product totally unavailable in South Africa. So, we had to be flexible and make changes to our menus and products often at the last minute.”
When it comes to expectations for the year ahead, restaurant workers are feeling positive following the momentums of last year’s successes.
“I feel pretty confident for this year. I feel like we are not entirely out of the woods yet and there is still a lot of hard work to be done to repair our economy, but I feel that the pandemic will hopefully come to an end,” says Chef Freddie Dias.
George reiterates that the work to keep everyone safe is still important. “We are still focused on making sure our guests always feel safe – many people are nervous to be out and are very conscious of Covid-19 safety precautions. We have to make sure we look after everyone,” he says.
There are some things restaurant workers would like to see change in the industry and as the pandemic continues.
“I’m excited to get back to some sort of normality. I hope that people also have a renewed level of respect for those working in hospitality – waiters, barmen and chefs – as this is a serious career for us,” George says.
“I hope that the restaurant industry won’t be forced to close every time we go through another wave and that it will continue to gain traction and stabilise. I’m excited to see the tourists returning to South Africa, and I hope to also take some time off to travel through our country,” adds Chef Ryan Cole.
“I am grateful to be working again. I hope that people come together in the vaccination effort to help us restore the economy and shore up the trust of global community who are looking forward to visit South Africa again. People will go out more, rediscover each other’s company and support the hospitality industry,” Sithembile says.
Vaccination remains key and industry bodies such as the Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA) and The Restaurant Collective (TRC) are doing their bit to get people vaccinated and educated on vaccination. In November last year RASA partnered with South African Breweries (SAB) to host a three- day vaccination activation in Sandton. TRC offers a vaccination education course complete with a certificate to display in restaurants.