It’s been one week since South African restaurants were able to reopen their doors for sit-down service. The industry and consumers were both excited and anxious about how things would pan out with the strict protocols now in place. We check in with industry insiders, chefs and restaurateurs to find out how SA restaurants are doing thus far.
The Restaurant Collective (RC) completed research among its sit-down restaurant members after one week back at work since lockdown to gauge the current state of the industry. While 75.3% said customers are patient and happy with the protocols, 76.5% of respondents said they are unfortunately massively down year on year. This is largely due to the restriction on alcohol as per enhanced Level 3 lockdown regulations that stipulate that alcohol must only be consumed at home.
Is there hope on the horizon? Restaurant Association of South Africa’s Wendy Alberts is positive: “I think we’ll have good success and find a workable solution between government and industry. We need to indicate how we can mobilise the industry and how to build.” Lobby group Restaurant Collective is also calling for limited alcohol consumption in sit-down restaurants. “Many South African sit-down restaurants are simply not sustainable without the sale of alcohol. It’s a vital profit centre, with up to 70% of profit coming from these sales,” explains Grace Harding, CEO of Ocean Basket and Restaurant Collective spokesperson.
“There is a solution,” says RC. “Sit-down restaurants are not pubs. We ask that sit-down dining establishments that already have On Consumption liquor licences be allowed to serve alcohol – with reasonable regulations. These sit-down restaurants would agree to limited hours for the sale of alcohol – between 12.30pm and 9pm is suggested – and all alcohol sales would have to be accompanied by meal orders. Alcohol sales would also be limited to beer and wine only, as these are the drinks most commonly paired with food,” the group shared.
A quote from The Prawnery’s Monwabisi Thethe shines a light on how the booze ban within restaurants is not sustainable for businesses: “The sit-down environment can be grossly misunderstood. Sit-down restaurants require people skills and the guests are within monitored spaces by managers and waiters. This environment is highly regulated and controlled and therefore safe even with the sale of alcohol. Job losses at these institutions will continue until we can make a profit. These restrictions could mean that the food and beverage economy takes even longer to recover, thus affecting the supply chain and even more job losses on critical skills.”
Unity and Café 1999 owner Marcelle Roberts also expresses concern: “We opened Unity on Tuesday and decided to keep Café 1999 closed. Alcohol sales are such a big part of our experience, and last week proved that most people won’t dine out if they can’t drink.”
Aside from the alcohol ban, other challenges that restaurants have brought to light in the first week of opening is getting their customers back. Wendy reiterates that “consumers need to feel safe”. Her advice to restaurants reopening is to work with the consumer. She encourages the trend of budget meals for mass-market restaurants with more of a focus on affordability, and for fine dining establishments to look at changing their menus to make them more exciting. Chef James Gaag of La Colombe echoes this sentiment: “We’re having to rethink the way we do a few things to be able to offer the same standard of food and service. It’s different (for us), but hopefully still an exceptional experience for our guests!”
People are also dining out in very small groups. That, along with social distancing regulations, is a difficult challenge for restaurant owners. The team at Arthur’s Mini Super has had some obstacles since reopening their sit-down offering, but they’re taking the challenges head-on: “Because we only have a window bar inside with 6 seats, we are only allowing people to sit down at our outside tables. The weather hasn’t been great, so we haven’t been very busy. It has been a good opportunity to re-evaluate how we do things. We have just taken on the shop next door, so watch our space!”
James Diack of Il Contadino is embracing this new way of running a business: “After weeks of faceless take-aways and the odd collection, seeing our regular and new customers alike has been a breath of fresh air. Obviously, the new normal is slightly awkward with masks and visors and the shop smelling of sanitiser, but to be allowed to do what we love and bring some more staff back has really given us all a major boost.” La Colombe’s first week of trading was also met with positive feedback: “Everyone is made to feel very comfortable and safe and allowed to just enjoy the experience. The feedback we’ve gotten is very positive and I think people are also just glad to be getting out and back to some sort of normality and allowed to enjoy the finer things again,” explains James Gaag.
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While we wait in hope for the easing of regulations, Wendy explains that the industry needs to think differently going forward: “We have to be responsible on protocols, but also provide an experience. We need to uplift the spirits of staff and restaurants – bring the experience back, get the magic back, remove the obstacles.”