Closed: Restaurants started emptying in mid-March, then had to shut their doors for the lockdown. Picture: Sunday Times/Daniel Born
Closed: Restaurants started emptying in mid-March, then had to shut their doors for the lockdown. Picture: Sunday Times/Daniel Born

Food is often more than just about the food: it’s sociable. People want to eat at the kind of place where everybody knows their name and knows that they always order the scrambled eggs, sausages, no toast.

In the barren days of Covid-19, it seems that fundraising has been particularly successful among these places — food spots that are valued parts of their communities. But it’s not a solve-all.

Croft & Co is a neighbourhood favourite in Parkview, Joburg. It’s been keeping the bikers and journalists and after-school moms of Tyrone Avenue going for 15 years.

Things were going well for it — so much so that owner Grant Ravenscroft borrowed millions to renovate the restaurant, which opened again in larger and upgraded premises.

At the end of March it had the best two weeks of trade in its history. Then the pandemic hit.

Ravenscroft says the whole process has been an emotional roller-coaster. It’s difficult putting yourself at risk and asking for money, he says. “And you say, why should someone save this nice restaurant in Parkview? Why not help a homeless person in Limpopo? It’s a terrible thing in your head … Yo u ’re on your knees begging for people to help you, and on the flip side, if your ship sinks we all drown and no one is helped.”

Croft & Co has raised more than R236,000 on GoGetFunding and another R40,000 or so via payment platform Zapper. Donations ranged from R25 to R10,000. Last month and this month it paid utilities, but not rent.

“I’ve been amazed by the support we got. I was in tears,” he says.

The money can probably cover wages and utilities for two months. So why are people supporting this kind of restaurant in this crisis?

“It’s a connection to people,” says Ravenscroft. “I think it’s a very difficult thing to go crowdfunding when yo u ’re part of a franchise. When you’re a neighbourhood restaurant where clients come and hang out, we have a closer relationship with people who support us. They know the staff by name.

“The aim is to try keep the shop open, to prop up some salaries and expenses. A misconception about crowdfunding is that everything is for the staff, but the reality is if we’re not paying insurance and utilities we don’t have a business.”

It’s not financially feasible for larger restaurants to open under the level 4 lockdown as they can’t justify it financially. “We ’re different to a Seattle Coffee shop with two people,” says Ravenscroft. “We ’re trying to prop up the shop for as long as we can in helping the staff and with basic costs.”

Croft & Co has started selling takeaway coffees and doing home deliveries. It’s not making much from this, but “w e’re trying to stop the bleed. We realistically are not making money, but have this scorecard ticking over. We’re also trying to show the people who have supported us on crowdfunding that I’m not lying down and playing dead. We ’re trying to make a go of it …here I’m hustling, trying to stay alive.”

Supporting your local

The Service Station in Melville has raised R83,405 of a target of R96,000 from 81 backers. It got creative, and if someone donates R500 or more they receive a takeaway voucher for R250. More than R1,000, and they receive a takeaway voucher for R500.

Owner Carmen van der Merwe says she thinks the support has to do with the fact that the Service Station h as been around for 20 years and has “a very personal relationship with most of our clients — m a ny of them have been coming to the Service Station for 20 years”.

There are a slew of initiatives to bolster restaurants. The Eat Out Restaurant Relief Fund has been created to offer financial support to restaurants. Pernod Ricard SA has pledged to donate R2m to support bartenders and waiters over the lockdown.

Chef Luke Dale Roberts requested donations for his staff at The Test Kitchen, The Shortmarket Club, Commissary, Salsify at The Roundhouse and the Pot Luck Club.

Anat is a Middle Eastern family-owned food brand founded in SA in 1992, known for its falafels and shawarmas. It turned to GoFundMe to stay afloat.

Eloise Windebank of Farro was one of the first restaurateurs to start a fundraising campaign for her staff, closing shortly before the lockdown to reduce operational expenses. Farro has raised R55,000 off BackaBuddy, solely to pay staff, from a target of R80,000, with 50 backers so far.

“I think people are funding restaurants because they want their locals and favourites to be there when they get out. They know the chefs, the staff; they want to do their part to make sure these people are not destitute.”

But she questions how long one would have to crowdfund to keep a restaurant going. “People are not going to keep crowdfunding forever,” she says. “I don’t know how to keep Farro alive. I don’t know what the parameters will be … I’m just trying to bridge the gap until I know what the other side looks like.”

What is preventing her from walking away? She has a surety on her lease. She’s tried talking to her landlord but nothing has been confirmed and if she defaults on the lease she will lose everything that the restaurant has, including the deposit, and contents wouldn’t sell for much in this climate.

“Lots of people are just calling it a day,” she says. “I think for lots of people that is the safest option, but I know a lot of restaurant owners who have five years left on the lease.”

Windebank says the restaurant industry across the world hasn’t been in a good place for a long time, with high overhead and staff costs “especially in a convenience society where people want more for less”.

Like many restaurants, it has not been financially feasible to open under level 4. The cost of walking into the building and turning on the lights is too high for what deliveries would bring in.

Social distancing would mean Farro could seat only 12 people at a time. “It feels like restaurants are inherently broken.”

She says government funding is only for businesses where 70% or more employees are South African. And taking a loan wouldn’t be viable. “We wouldn’t be able to pay it back even after a year; we would be in debt forever.”

Windebank doesn’t think restaurants will be able to return to normal before the peak of the infection, and that’s likely to be several months away.

“I think we did very well, also because we got in quite early. It gives me a sense of ease … I know I can look after my staff for a fe months while hopefully the dust settles enough to decide what the next steps are.”

Ignored by UIF

Despite not being able to work and earn, the team at Brik Café go together to help pack food parcels for NGO Afrika Tikkun, and owner Sasha Simpson asked for financial support to get through the lockdown, on BackaBuddy. In the post she said she’d applied to every Covid relief scheme and diligently filled out the paperwork for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) claims but h a d n’t received any support.

So she put out a message to raise funds for her team — the chefs baristas, waiters, cleaners and staff.

Because the staff is about 70% foreign, “our UIF claim has been denied and I have applied again for the fourth time. We’re holding thumbs,” she says.

Brik Café opened a year ago and became a popular spot in Rosebank serving creative, healthy dishes. During the lockdown it was granted a rent holiday by the landlords and took out loans to keep the business afloat, but it hadn’t managed to secure enough to pay salaries to the 25-strong staff. It has raised R33,000 out of a target of R80,000.

Has it made a difference? “We haven’t been able to raise enough to give each member what we had hoped, but it is helping the team that can’t get back to work this month. We are very grateful.”

Simpson thinks people who are lucky enough to still be getting a full salary have allocated what they would have spent to the restaurants they used to frequent.

“The people who have donated to Brik are family, friends and our repeat customers — because we integrate into Workshop 17 in Rosebank we have some clients who have a coffee or eat at Brik every single day.”

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.