A restaurateur’s COVID-19 experience

Larry Hodes shares how the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent national lockdown has affected Calexico at 44 Stanley in Milpark, Johannesburg.

On Monday 16 March, when the rumours off COVID-19 started becoming more serious, there was an immediate drop-off in customers in my three restaurants. Within the next 10 days, my turnover would decrease by between 80 to 100% in my restaurants. When the new liquor laws were announced on 19 March, it made no sense to continue with Calexico at 44 Stanley in Milpark – considering it was a bar and live music venue.

Calexico had been struggling for a while for various reasons. Taking everything into account, we made the hard decision of permanently closing Calexico, as there was no way it was going to be able to sustain itself once the lockdown had ended.

From Monday 16 March we had to kick into gear very quickly, by decreasing labour hours, cutting back on our ordering and reducing our operating times. We had only just launched the Dark Kitchen (a delivery-only model) and were hoping that restaurants could still continue doing deliveries. However, this was not to be.

It is now a month later and the last few weeks have been very tough. Among the many things I have had to deal with include explaining the reduction of hours to staff, letting them know that I would not be able to pay their full salaries, and having to write letters to their landlords requesting that they consider the situation before serving notices of eviction.

I also had to contact suppliers and my landlords about not being able to pay the outstanding invoices and rentals. I had to dig into all my cash reserves to pay whatever salaries and debit orders I could.

I still had some debit orders bounce. It has been hard not knowing if my other two restaurants will survive post the lockdown, as I am still in the process of applying for various loans and financial assistance.

As much as it has been a very tough period, it has also been a huge growth phase. What has made it easier for me is knowing that there are many other restaurants facing the same challenges as me. While I knew the harsh challenges that I would face if there were a lockdown, I was also very proud of the government and all the political parties working together and taking bold, decisive action. It has also been very encouraging seeing the government, many private individuals and banks step up and make sizable charitable donations and provide financial assistance to businesses and staff.

It has also been very powerful knowing that I can choose how I respond to this crisis and also that we have never been gifted with so much time to work on our restaurants and ourselves. Too often we are so busy working in our restaurants that we do not work on our business and we miss out on many opportunities to become better, improve the guest experience, grow our sales and more.

I do believe that, either way, we are all going to come out of this a lot stronger.

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