Steven Maresch, the co-owner of The Local Grill in Parktown North, Johannesburg, inside his cold room. Picture: SEBABATSO MOSAMO
Steven Maresch, the co-owner of The Local Grill in Parktown North, Johannesburg, inside his cold room. Picture: SEBABATSO MOSAMO

Some in the sit-down restaurant industry, one of the sectors hardest hit by lockdown regulations, are opting to make hot food for home delivery as they look at every possible avenue to rescue their businesses.

With some form of lockdown expected to remain for months, restaurateurs are facing a bleak future and those working under level 4 lockdown rules in place from Friday are not under any illusion that this will be profitable for them.

It’s more about retaining some staff as well as keeping in contact with customers. And it's not an easy adjustment.

“It’s like telling a rugby player to suddenly start playing soccer,” said Steve Maresch, co-owner of 18-year-old Johannesburg steakhouse The Local Grill, which will prepare meals from a reduced menu for home delivery.

“It’s not profitable. It won't even keep the lights on, but it keeps us sane knowing we are making a positive difference.”

Fortunately for him the restaurant’s landlord and suppliers have been supportive and “have our backs and have given us hope to get through this”.

“We are in the same storm, but in different boats. We spoke to our landlord who was very amicable and understanding. One of our biggest suppliers told us to do what we can, saying they have our backs.”

Maresch said The Local Grill, which employs 34 people, applied for and received essential service status to sell frozen meals and fresh meat, with Maresch and one of his chefs continuing to work.

It’s like telling a rugby player to start playing soccer.
Restaurateur Steve Maresch

Now with the restaurant aiming to do home deliveries, it will be operating with five of its staff, who will also deliver the food.

Maresch’s neighbour, Marius de la Rey, who owns La Boqueria, finds himself in a similar situation.

La Boqueria will also be doing home deliveries from a reduced menu, using services such as Uber Eats and Bolt for delivery, but De la Rey said there is no way it can make a profit from this.

The nature of his restaurant, which is known for its extensive wine list and fine dining experience, doesn’t lend itself to a delivery model.

“People come to our restaurant to celebrate events. You come for the experience.”

He said exploring the home delivery option is more about finding a way for his restaurant to “try and keep in touch with our customers”.

“I would never be able to try and pay my rent or my salaries or wages on a delivery-only model."

His restaurant, which normally provides a livelihood for 80 people, will now have a massively reduced staff of only about 10% of that, helping to prepare meals for delivery. He said the delivery companies make a bigger margin than the restaurant does.

Bertus Basson, who owns Stellenbosch restaurants Eike, Overture, Spek en Bone and De Vrije Burger, is also starting home deliveries from Friday, making use of Uber Eats and his own staff to transport the meals.

“The reality is I believe we have got to get going. We are also running a soup kitchen from our Eike restaurant for the [poorer] community around Stellenbosch.

“It’s not about making money because no-one is making money. It’s about keeping staff and myself engaged.”

The Grillhouse in Rosebank, Johannesburg, however, will not be opening under level 4 regulations.

The owner of the 25-year-old steakhouse, Saul Mervis, said it was “definitely not looking at this option” as it has always been a place “patrons visited for an experience”.

He said the figures just would not make sense for the restaurant to start doing home deliveries only.

“It would be like the QE2 [ocean liner] being used to take four people across Zoo Lake,” said Mervis.

“Steak is also not one of the better travellers and we wouldn’t want to do it from a reputational point of view.”

Mike Said, who runs MikeSaidWhat, which consults predominantly to the restaurant industry, said the sector had to think carefully about reopening for home deliveries, making sure restaurants “weren’t losing money” doing it.

He said the industry had already been under pressure due to a weak economy and rising occupancy and labour costs, and margins had been squeezed for at least a couple of years leading up to Covid-19.

Few restaurants had enough capital to carry themselves for a few months without any income coming in.

“Who could ever have dreamt in their wildest dreams that we’d not be allowed to sell food?” said Said.

He expects that roughly 20% of SA’s estimated 10,000 to 20,000 restaurants simply won’t open their doors again after the lockdown is lifted completely.

He said that 20% of the industry was probably “already under pressure before Covid-19 and wondering if they were going to survive”.

“I would say that within three to six months of reopening completely after lockdown we could see another 20% fail.”

The Franchise Association of SA (Fasa) said that many fast-food franchisees are “welcoming the opportunity to open for deliveries and will do everything to make sure they put in place all the necessary safety protocols to protect their staff and their customers”.

Fasa added that “many restaurants which rely on sit-down will try that option, but there are others, like Spur, Tashas and Ocean Basket, which have said it may not be worth their while”.

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