An empty restaurant in Johannesburg in June 2021. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN
An empty restaurant in Johannesburg in June 2021. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN

To the casual observer, the changed curfew hours under level 1 of the Covid-19 restrictions probably seem insignificant, but to most restaurants they are a lifeline.

A full 70% of the restaurant business comes from the brief window of dinnertime trade, which means that being open for a few hours during this crucial period is a precious opportunity to claw back some of the catastrophic losses suffered by the industry since the start of this pandemic.

Given the critical place of alcohol sales in the bottom line of most restaurants, having the normal sale of alcohol allowed up to the curfew also comes as a welcome relief.

Taken together, these changes to the Covid-19 restrictions will allow our industry to bring more staff back to work, waiters will earn tips they have been doing without, and the entire value chain of suppliers to the restaurant industry will receive a sorely needed boost in income.

For many restaurants teetering on the brink of liquidation, this may be the difference between closing their doors for good and living to fight another day. Sadly, for many, it is too little too late.

There seems little appreciation within government circles for the devastation this has caused, not just for restaurant owners but especially for the thousands of waiters, chefs and kitchen and cleaning staff — to speak only of those directly employed by the industry.

Through various levels of restrictions, restaurants have been trading at about 25% of their potential, forcing them to place more than 70% of staff on unpaid layoffs. Many of these people are low-income workers with no transferable skills to help them find new jobs.

The uncertainty our industry has endured for the past 18 months due to haphazard and careless decision-making is simply not sustainable

Another large contingent are graduates from tertiary education who use the hospitality trade as a bridge between college or university and finding formal employment. Still others are students paying their own way through their studies by working in a restaurant.

The shocking youth unemployment figures in SA are a testimony to the crying need for these jobs, and yet the cavalier treatment of the sector by the government suggests it either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, about these enterprising young people.

Many other businesses depend on the restaurant trade, from food growers and processors to taxi and cleaning services, to tourism operators whose clients wish to enjoy the unique local food culture and iconic status of some of our top restaurants. Cape Town, for example, was rated the best food city in the world by Conde Nast in 2016.

Some of our landmark eateries are gone due to the lockdown restrictions and many more are hanging on by a thread in the hope that the upcoming tourism season — if it materialises — will save them. Restaurants rely on revenue from the summer season to see them through the following winter, and any loss of income over this period would be a killer blow to those still standing.

They have had to service their debt on just 25% of normal revenue and are drowning in letters of demand. It is no exaggeration to say that another round of strict curfews, alcohol bans or, in the worst case, closing restaurants altogether, will leave a permanent hole in employment and the economy as swathes of the restaurant and hospitality sector collapse.

International tourism

The obvious solution is to radically accelerate vaccinations so that should a fourth wave of Covid-19 arrive, the majority of cases will be less severe and the burden on the health system reduced. This would allow the economy, including restaurants, to remain fully open without the risk of avoidable deaths.

International tourism, a critical source of foreign exchange, will only revive when sufficient numbers of the population have been vaccinated and our country is no longer viewed as a Covid-19 hotspot.

But vaccination is not the only answer. A more targeted approach to lockdown restrictions, which allows these to be set at provincial level, would go a long way towards managing the pandemic without the destructive effects of harsh nationwide lockdowns.

Arbitrary bans on alcohol, which undermine the business model many restaurants are built on, must be avoided. The uncertainty our industry has endured for the past 18 months due to haphazard and careless decision-making is simply not sustainable.

We beg for consideration, consultation and support from the government to keep our industry afloat, for the sake of a critical value chain in our economy and the hundreds of thousands of livelihoods at risk. The opportunity cost of failing to do so will be felt for generations to come.

• Alberts is CEO of the Restaurant Association of SA.

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