“We’re tired now”: SA chefs weigh in on adjusted level 4 restrictions

South Africa is in its second week of adjusted alert level 4 lockdown after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Sunday 27 June. The government’s latest approach to combating the country’s third wave of COVID-19 infections means that for 14 days all gatherings, including social, political and religious, are prohibited. For restaurants and bars, this means no sit-down service and yet another alcohol ban. In previous lockdown iterations, the hospitality and alcohol industries took a devastating knock and, while restaurants can still operate as takeaway and delivery businesses, the question is: will this be enough? Local chefs and restaurateurs weigh in.

To takeaway or not to takeaway

Due to the many levels of lockdowns and the rollercoaster of restrictions the industry has been hit with in the past year, local restaurant owners have had to pivot and adapt in more ways than they could have ever imagined. The concept of a takeaway, which was once just a simple add-on service that restaurants offered has, for many, become the only way to operate, but to what extent?

Damian Dafel, owner and chef at Dahlia on Regent Road in Sea Point, Cape Town, has had to pivot his small business into a takeaway and, while fans remain loyal, that may not be enough. “For as long as we have money to, we are trying to do as much takeaway as possible, but at the moment it’s proving that it’s not going to be our saviour,” says the chef, whose restaurant has only been open since late 2019. “Six or seven takeaways every three or four hours is not going to save us, but we’re doing what we can because we need to try to get through the next month. We’re tired now but, hopefully, we will come out on the other end.”

dahlia on regent

Dish from Dahlia on Regent

With some restaurants already geared for delivery or takeaway service, they’ve been taking this time to innovate and fine-tune that offering.

“We are up and adapting and running!” says Rob and Robynne Colepeper of Shoots and Leaves in Umhlanga. “We are amazed at the ease with which we have transitioned into lockdown level 4 mode; obviously after last year’s shock closure, this time around we were better prepared.” The eatery, which is, fortunately, more equipped for this style of service, has been seeing an uptick in sales of certain offerings, such as their convenience meals and DIY meal boxes.

Nadia Singh of new restaurant The Bespokery in Parkview, Randburg has opted to keep her restaurant open for now. While the restaurant hasn’t been open long enough to know whether takeaways will work or not, the team have created a family menu that is aimed at providing tasty, satisfying food. “A key lesson that we have learnt so far is that our database consists of customers that visited Bespokery because it was a dining experience. Now, I’m trying to mine this same database for customers that are looking for nutritious convenience for their families. This number becomes even smaller if we then target customers within a 5km radius. Taking our potential market size into account, I am not sure if it is possible to sustain ourselves beyond the initial lockdown period.”

Those who have opted to not start a takeaway or delivery system have been either forced to close their doors be it for good or for a (hopefully) short period. Karla Hart of Cape Town’s Seed & Circus has decided to keep the doors of their restaurant closed. “We are unsure whether we’ll be able to cover our costs of opening and cannot bear the risk after over a year of up-and-down trade. We haven’t designed our operation to work on a sole takeaway basis, so it makes more sense for us to just close,” she explains. “A standstill in trading poses a huge threat to getting our staff and suppliers paid by the end of July,” she adds.

Seed & Circus

Jess van Dyk of Protege in Franschhoek explains that takeaways were not an option for them. “Doing takeaways from a fine-dining or more high-end establishment, with very few people around, didn’t seem viable. Our town depends on day or weekend visitors who pass through because of wine farms and our ‘wine and dine’ culture. With no booze, no wine farms and no sit-down meals, very few people would still choose to visit our shores.”

We adapt but at what cost?

Whether remaining open or choosing to close over this period, restaurants are still faced with serious concerns not only for their businesses but for the wellbeing of their staff. Carin Robinson, co-owner of The Glenwood Bakery in Durban, explains: “Trade has remained strong over the pandemic because it has been deemed an essential service, selling bread. A large aspect of our business has always been a shop and deli. But we have a very busy cafe, too. And when we have to close our cafe, this impacts on the lives of the people we employ for that part of our trade. Nearly all our waiters are currently unemployed.” She goes on to add that the current restrictions are unnecessarily harsh: “We believe it is nothing short of cruel to expect people to simply not earn a living for two weeks, or perhaps longer. Unless South Africans are financially supported by the state during strict lockdowns, it is difficult to see such measures as ethically justified.”

Lexi Monzeglio, owner of the Lexi’s Eatery restaurants, reiterates how difficult these times are regardless if you’re geared towards being a takeaway restaurant or not. Lexi adds that there’ll still be a huge impact on customer behaviour after these two weeks. “It’s the time that it takes for everybody’s behaviour to change again and for everyone to feel normal again and not be afraid. The business was not even close to normal a month ago and now we are obviously bleeding out, so we have chosen to stay open at all the stores, seven days a week with takeaways.” The sole purpose is mainly to pay the staff, explains Lexi, and the income will barely make ends meet for her business. “We’re really unsure of how this is all going to play out and whether we’re gonna make it through. Overall, our stability and financial status are looking quite grim, so we’re feeling a little bit despondent and honestly quite devastated about the fact that we are almost back at square one, a year later.”

“We can’t afford to be closed and lose ANY more revenue,” adds Jess. “Our numbers were small already, seeing that it’s winter. My people have families at home who all depend on that one salary to pull them through.”

Will restaurants ever be the same again?

“While we understand that the government is under extreme pressure to reduce COVID-19 numbers in South Africa, we truly do not believe that closing restaurants is the answer to this,” says Leigh Williamson of The Table at De Meye in Stellenbosch. “Our hearts break for our team, suppliers and fellow restaurants, who were finally starting to recover from the last lockdown.”

A Stellenbosch foodie experience at The Table at De Meye. Photo supplied.

Sepial Shim of Sepial’s Kitchen, Allium and Ugly Dumpling opened her two food stalls during lockdown to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and explains that formal sit-down restaurants are receiving the brunt of it. “They have bigger overhangs and are affected by regulations harder. We might not have the same eat-out culture ever again.” She goes on to add that the staff are reaching their limits, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying. “Staff at restaurants are already overworking. Sometimes we cannot offer as excellent services as we did before; this doesn’t mean that we are mean or unfriendly.”

The industry needs us now more than ever

“We have been incredibly fortunate to receive so much support from the local market over the past season and look forward to welcoming everyone back soon,” says Leigh.

No matter what the outlook is, one thing is certain: our beloved restaurant industry is in dire straits and there has never been more of a need for South African food lovers to come together than right now. So, support the restaurants that are offering takeaways, be understanding and show them love, buy vouchers for those that are remaining closed, and let’s see our restaurants through this.

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