What does a third COVID wave mean for restaurants? SA chefs weigh in

With more than a year of lockdown behind us, the words “curfew” and “family meeting”, ring a little differently. We’ve seen our fair share of restaurant closures but, more importantly, we’ve seen a shift in the industry and chefs and restaurant owners are continuing to navigate their way through the constant rollercoaster ride this pandemic has taken them on.

In response to the third wave hitting some provinces, President Ramaphosa addressed the nation last week and announced that the country would move to adjusted alert level-2 of lockdown effective 31 May. While some of the new regulations may seem minor to restaurants, there are still concerns for the industry, especially with winter setting in.

The only real change for restaurants is the reinstated evening curfew of 11 pm. This new time now forces restaurants and bars to close at 10 pm. While to many this may not seem too drastic, chefs and restaurateurs are worried that this may deter people from eating out.

David Higgs of Marble and Saint echoes this: “It’s more of a psychological thing than anything else. There’s only an hour difference, but it’s winter, it’s colder, and it makes people second guess going out. The big thing is that being in the hospitality industry and asking people to leave your restaurant at 10 pm just doesn’t sit well. But we mustn’t complain, we’re busy and we must carry on. Marble and Saint are always lekker for winter, so we’re hoping that it just carries on. It’s just about adapting, reshuffling and rethinking.”, he says.

As David says, restaurants have needed to reshuffle and this is something that El Burro owner Nic Haarhoff has had to do with his Green Point restaurant.

“We certainly are in an interesting new normal. The impending third wave, load shedding, customers economically strained, there are many factors at play at the moment which makes trade interesting”, says Nic. After downscaling their upstairs 160-seater restaurant and moving into the 40 to 50-seater space downstairs, Nic says that they’ve minimised their rental exposure. “It’s a model we know is more streamlined and lockdown resistant”, he explains.

Kylan Pather, owner of Lucky Shaker in Umhlanga, explains that there are two sides to it: “I feel now, more than ever we should come together as a country, and be a bit more conscious. It only takes one compromised immune system to infect a whole family. In saying this, support the local businesses around – whether it’s take out or at a socially distanced table because we are all still trying to get back on our feet. Without the support of our local and loyal clientele, we won’t stay open.”

While South Africa has lost countless beloved eateries, there are also many new places opening, giving us the feeling that things will be normal again one day. One of the soon-to-open restaurants is chef Vusi Ndlovu’s new spot in Franschhoek. The chef explains that with this excitement, he and his team need to be cautious: “We’re opening in a tricky time and we accept that. We have contingency plans in place to ensure that our teams are safe. I have friends overseas who have suffered a great deal due to this pandemic so we are taking all those lessons into account.”

With concerns aside, chefs and restaurant owners are acknowledging the need for these regulations. “I think it’s good that precautions are being taken now already so that things can still operate,” says Sandalene Dale Roberts of TTK Fledgelings. “People’s safety and health at the end of the day is the most important thing and we will, of course, look after our staff as much as we can. I think we’re just becoming a bit jaded by the whole thing and COVID is just becoming a part of our everyday lives.”

Chef James Diack, who owns Il Contadino, Coobs and Antonym in Johannesburg, reiterates this saying “it’s extremely important as the restaurant industry that we remain both conscious and vigilant not to push the boundaries and risk another industry-crushing lockdown.” He also speaks about customers needing to step up: “I do fear there is somewhat of COVID fatigue and people are dropping their guards and this can’t be allowed to happen”.

Our incredible restaurant industry has shown how formidable it really is but this isn’t a time to become complacent. To this sentiment, Lucky Shaker’s Kylan Pather adds, “We’re all looking to the future, for sustainability instead of a quick buck. That will be the difference between the venues that stick around and those that shut down.”

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