Surviving winter: how restaurants are innovating to sail through the slow season

Restaurateurs are evolving unique strategies to beat the winter slump and pull in more patrons. 

The onset of winter spells evenings spent curled up on the couch, bundled up in blankets and calling dibs on the closest spot to the fireplace. For restaurants, however, this means a significant drop in business and a struggle to get through the trying winter months. The loss of income is exacerbated by the lack of tourists in South Africa at this time of the year, while locals with deep pockets escape to warmer climes abroad for the holidays.

Adding to restaurant owners’ woes are higher inflation, rising food prices, inflated utility bills and additional diesel costs to run generators during load shedding, all of which have put an additional strain on revenues. The higher cost of living has also led to constrained household budgets, with dining out being deemed an avoidable luxury that can be substituted with ordering in, which is cheaper and eliminates travel costs.

For restaurateurs to be able to get more feet through the door, with patrons braving the chilly weather to dine out, requires innovative strategies and unique experiences that can’t be replicated at home.

Winter specials and seasonal menus

Winter menus comprising shortened experiences with reduced prices is the most common strategy adopted by restaurants to attract more locals.

“At Salsify, we run our ‘locals-only’ menu in winter, which is a four-course menu, plus snacks. The idea is to offer a reduced menu, which is still quintessentially Salsify. It’s a nice way to give our regulars a bit of a treat in these colder months. In winter, it’s about keeping the lights on more than making money. We really appreciate our local diners for helping us do that,” avers Ryan Cole, head chef and owner of Eat Out 3-star restaurant Salsify at the Roundhouse.

Some restaurants look at incorporating more seasonal ingredients into their menu that are usually found only during winter. Others offer more hearty, comforting and wholesome winter meals to draw in more diners.

“During winter, we offer a seasonal menu with more ‘hearty’ produce, a lot of which comes from what we grow,” says Adriaan Maree, owner of Pretoria-based Fermier restaurant. Agrees Nico Goosen, head chef and co-owner, The Blue Crane Restaurant and Bar, Pretoria, “Warm and hearty blackboard specials that include venison, which is mostly available in winter, coupled with food-and-drink combos, has helped us maintain a steady stream of clientele during winter.”

Frugality and cost control

From negotiating with suppliers for better prices and reducing food waste to practising scrupulous stock inventory control and prudent utilities management, restaurateurs have developed innovative cost-cutting strategies to get them through the winter months.

“We watch utility consumption very carefully, switching off equipment, geysers and gas stoves when not required. We are also extra cautious on wastage and have tight stock controls in place,” explains Cherise Stopforth, operations manager, George’s Grill House, Hyde Park Corner, Johannesburg.

Keeping limited stock, minimising food waste, strict inventory control, using local suppliers from the Midlands and focusing on fresh, farm-to-fork and sustainable ingredients grown on their own farm, is how the Midlands Fable in Durban manages operational cost control. Ashley Moss, culinary director, FYN, Cape Town, concurs. “We minimise wastage by utilising all our produce to its maximum potential. We also use locally foraged ingredients from around the coast which has the bonus of keeping purchases down,” he says.


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At Basalt in Johannesburg, resident chef James Diack offers guests evolving tasting menus that change every six to eight weeks and are based on produce that is seasonally available and sustainably farmed or caught. This keeps the menu interesting and helps to control food costs.


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Adds Johannes Richter and Johanna Richter, proprietors of Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant of the Year, The LivingRoom at Summerhill Estate, “Everyone works hard to be as resourceful as possible without compromising the experience our guests have. Sometimes this resourcefulness gives us a creative edge by finding new techniques with something that wouldn’t have featured otherwise.”

Experiences, events and social media engagement

In order to overcome the winter evening impasse that most restaurants face, engaging experiences promoted actively via social media is a proven winning strategy. Mark Mattinson, general manager, Midlands Fable in Durban, tells us, “The Taproom is open in the evenings when our Fable eatery is shut. Besides, the Taproom and Fable host a number of private events, charcuterie grazing events, wine pairing evenings, special occasion evenings, fortnightly quiz nights, speed dating evenings and live sports and drinks specials. This definitely helps to keep business running.”

Calvin Metior, executive chef of The Chefs’ Table in Umhlanga, tells us that the restaurant collaborates with wine farms for food and wine pairing evenings, apart from running a ladies’ lunch promo with a reduced-price menu and a two- to three-course set menu at reduced rates.


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According to Charl Whitlock, owner-manager, De Kloof restaurant, Pretoria, “We push the marketing, especially social media marketing, into the red, particularly when it comes to private functions such as birthdays or anniversaries. Another strategy that works well for us is hosting wine pairing evenings. Our annual ‘Wildsvleis & Red Wine’ events are also popular, seasonal and appropriate for winter.”

Adds Whitney Botes, co-owner and head chef, Willow Way Manor, Durban, “We offer live music evenings with outdoor bonfires and recently installed an indoor log fireplace in our Grand Room venue. By creating more lounge areas with comfy couches and carpets, we find that guests stay longer because they are warm and relaxed.”

Cashing in on warmer winter days

Warmer daytime temperatures during winter tend to benefit restaurants in Johannesburg. Remarks Steve Hackner, operations director at Eat Out star restaurant The Shortmarket Club in Johannesburg, “In Jozi, there is not a big drop-off in customers during winter. Typically, there is a night or two that is quieter during the week and then weekends are busy. Rain is the only element that really impacts negatively.”

In Durban, too, where winter is not as harsh, restaurants do not necessarily experience a decline in business. Francois Steyn, owner of Pretoria-based Hillside Tavern, tells us, “Due to the design and cosy atmosphere of our dining room, as well as the diversity of our menu, the winter months are typically the busiest of the year. Obviously, we lose business on the patio especially at night, but the dining room fills up more.”

Consistency and quality

Apart from the above factors, the most important strategy for restaurants to keep the fires burning during winter, quite literally, is to maintain quality, consistency and offer affordable experiences with impeccable service and ambience.

“Our main goal is to ensure that our spaces are full every day, which we achieve by maintaining high standards, excellent service, consistent food quality, and a beautiful ambience. Additionally, we keep the menu interesting by constantly introducing new changes. We also add lots of entertainment to keep things fresh throughout the season. We are grateful for the patrons who trust us to provide a memorable dining experience every time they visit,” states Gary Kyriacou, partner at Zioux in Johannesburg, winner of the Eat Out VISI Style Award.


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Liam Tomlin, partner at Chefs Warehouse Tintswalo Atlantic in Cape Town, tells us that the group sees a surge of business for seven to eight months of the year and uses those profits earned to ride through the slower winter months. He adds, “As a group, we’ve always been very conscious of consistency and value for money. We watch every penny as best we can without compromising our product and standards or jeopardising the customer experience. And we’ve always tried to look after the local clientele, because we rely on them in the winter.”

Winter is also a time for strategising and working towards improving the customer dining experience. Elaborates Van Zyl van der Merwe, restaurant manager, The Waterside Restaurant, another Eat Out star restaurant in Cape Town, “While it is difficult to maintain a profit during winter, the quieter months give us time to streamline our operations and prepare for the busy months ahead.”

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