🔒 Restaurant sector, currently in ICU on a ventilator, will die if we must wait for Level 1 – Ocean Basket’s Grace Harding

Alec Hogg speaks to Chief Executive of Ocean Basket and spokesperson for the Restaurant Collective, Grace Harding, about South Africa’s strict lockdown and the enormous strain which it has placed upon the country’s restaurant industry. From banks to landlords, Harding discuses the different responses and levels of support the restaurant industry has received. She emphasises the effort that restaurants have placed into developing a Covid-safe protocol for the industry that supports up to two million people – all in the hopes that the sector won’t have to wait until Level 1 to re-open. In a desperate plea she states: “With a hand on my heart… We will not make it!” – Nadya Swart

Grace Harding is the Chief Executive of Ocean Basket. She’s also the spokesperson for the Restaurant Collective. Grace, we’ve seen a lot of businesses under enormous strain during the last eight weeks of the very strict lockdown. I heard today (incidentally) that if it carries on for another week it’ll be the longest anywhere in the world in its severity – even worse than Wuhan, which is quite interesting. Restaurants haven’t been open or certainly not for sit-downs?

No. Recently they have obviously allowed delivery and some of our restaurants and other restaurants have attempted delivery. I think for the very small one-man-band restaurants – they’ve got a very dedicated clientele – they’re making some money, but we’re a sit-down restaurant and we never want to be anything else. We know that people do want to gather, we’re social beings and we really need to stick to doing that in a really safe way.

So what happens now? Last time we spoke, some weeks ago, you obviously weren’t open then. It’s eight weeks on – things are presumably a lot tougher?

It’s getting worse and worse and it truly is catastrophic to the restaurant industry and to the ecosystem of the restaurant industry. Not only are there the employees who each feed an average of six to seven people, then, there’s the green grocer, the man who supplies the meat, etc. So many restaurants are really tiny, tiny businesses and it’s absolutely catastrophic. Some of the landlords have really been helpful. We’re still trying to chat to others, because – never mind what’s happening now – when we go back, we aren’t going to go back with a bang and go back to making the money we were. So many of our customers have been retrenched, so it’s this unknown. So now, we are almost like in ICU on a ventilator. Deliveries have been like a bit of high care, but we haven’t managed to feed ourselves yet, and opening is going to be occupational therapy.

How are you going to adapt to the new world? Or, how are sit-down restaurants going to adapt to the new world?

How long is this going to be around for? The other day I was wondering, ‘how are we all gonna go out to dinner and wear masks – like, are we going to cut slits in them or something?’. What I can say is we’ve gotten together and we’ve put together a really good Covid-safe protocol. We realise that the government is nervous and we do respect that. We don’t know if we’re more nervous about Covid or more nervous about just dying and shutting down. So we’ve put it together, we’re going to submit it to the government, we’ve got two associations who are helping us and we want them to approve it and then we’re going to take it on board to also offer mass Zoom training to restaurant managers. So we want the government to know we will do everything that we can to make sure that the restaurant is a safe place for the staff and for the customer. 

When you say ‘we’ – how many restaurants are involved in this?

The number of restaurants is about just under 500. Obviously, Ocean Basket has got quite a few and then we’ve got many of the other groups who’ve also offered help, and what’s great is – it’s not just people joining a thing, it’s people giving advice.  We’ve been sharing all our Covid protocol to put together one consolidated one. We get calls from one-man-bands to ask for help. So most of the other brands are part of it, not all. And very exciting is one-man-bands and then people like Tshwane Tourism Association – who have restaurants as part of them – have also asked us to come and help their restaurants. So, we’re doing the work anyway. We have the training team anyway at Ocean Basket, for example. We are so happy to train other managers and make sure that the whole industry is safe and that’s the immediate need. 

How are your restaurants working now? Clearly, they’re not taking bookings, you don’t have dinners. What percentage of staff would be there to help with the takeaways?

So at the moment I only know Ocean Basket – we’ve only got about 25 restaurants open. And if you think about it, it’s really only the back of house staff – so out of 25-30 people, no more than about eight. So what we want to do is we want to hold on to as many people as we can. It will be devastating. There are going to be restaurants that are going to close, but we are working hard with the entire ecosystem to make sure that when they open – they can at least limp along for a while. We’re all gonna limp for a while and we need everybody’s support.

Grace, that’s 25 out of 152 restaurants that are open. 

Not even making sufficient money. In normal trading times – delivery is less than 10% of our income.

And how many people are affected directly or indirectly by restaurants being closed in this way?

So you see, the one thing that the sit-down restaurants don’t have a lot of yet in South Africa is data, but we assume there’s about 7,000 restaurants in total in the country. And if we take an average of 20 staff (because some restaurants are really big and some are smaller), that is about 140,000 people. Then, times seven people that each employee feeds, so we’re getting to a million now. And we’ve left out the ecosystem – so, someone who makes sauces for the restaurant, who delivers beautiful cakes or fruit salads. So, when we keep on adding it, it’s going to get to over 2 million people. Easily.

Are you finding that the government support systems are helping? The UIF, for instance. 

Inconsistently. So, some of our restaurants have been paid. I know there’s a webinar tomorrow with the marketing person from the UIF that someone’s hosting. It’s inconsistent. So… is it effective? Out of 10 – it’s probably between a four and a five. And many of us have had to step in and help our crew.

And what about landlords?

There’s been a mixed bag of responses. We see that an organisation is being set up – PIG – property investment group. So, we’re still going to chat to them. But mixed responses – some landlords completely understand and other landlords are saying things like, ‘okay, so we’ll give it to you for free, but we’ll hold onto it and you can pay us back later’. And we just need to massage that, because – when is later? We can’t pay you back in December, because by then we’ll have gone from occupational therapy to physiotherapy – so we will not be walking yet. So there’s a few of those nuances and at the same time – I have a lot of empathy for them. We are all struggling. I really believe – and I’ve been saying it over and over again – we’ll find a solution if we just sit together and not do this email and letter sending stuff. 

What about the banks?  Many of the franchisees are funded by the major banks – have they come to the party? 

Once again, different banks – different responses. Of course, in the main – they certainly do understand that big loans can’t be paid back. But we want to try and work with them for more support. As I keep on saying, obviously we are all focused on right now, but we also have to focus on how we open – can we perhaps talk about a reduced credit card fee for a while? So the ethos is – let’s walk together, when we all have a little – we share it, when we all have a little bit more – we’ll share that too. But overall, the responses from bankers and banks are supportive and at the same time, there’s no sort of overall law in the country that says, ‘Okay guys – this is how we’re going to come together and create support’. So we’ve got to find that support alone. I just don’t know when the money is going to run out, because it’s not a bottomless bucket.

When are you going to be allowed to re-open restaurants – at what level? We’re now going to Level 3, apparently. 

At the moment they say Level 1, but Alec… it can’t happen at Level 1. With a hand on my heart… We will not make it. We really will not make it. The big brands, of course, have got a little bit more backing and Ocean Basket, for example, is a big brand. But we have to think about the whole industry now. We have to support each other. And if we wait until Level 1, which is currently, I think, September – we’re just not going to make it. There’s just no money coming into these businesses at all. Zero.

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