A State of Emergency has been declared following reports of the COVID-19 in South Africa. This is going to have a dramatic impact on the economy, and specifically the hospitality industry. Restaurants are going into crisis mode as they’re forced to close shop under the lockdown or resorting to desperate measures to stay afloat.
Joanne Botha is the founder and owner of Pillar9 (Pty) Ltd and is a leading reputation strategist with over 20 years of experience. She has worked with iconic brands from around the world to develop reputation strategies that support business goals. She has a passion for strategy and management and has worked extensively on reputation development, executive profiling, business development, high-level media relations and issues management.
Disclosure: This interview was conducted following the president’s first national address of the COVID-19 situation and rules. At the time of writing this, restaurants were still allowed to remain open with 50 pax, but now it is lockdown for everyone, so obviously some answers may not in line with the current situation – like home delivery of prepared meals and bottles of wine and online wine orders. Please familiarise yourself with the current laws affecting your business.
Her extensive client list includes Chef David Higgs and The Marble Group (Marble & Saint restaurants), Chef James Diack and The Brightside Group (Coobs, Il Contadino & La Stalla), MultiChoice Group, Naqiyah Mayat, Grei at The Saxon, The Marabi Club, DW eleven-13, Amplify Investment Partners, Clico Boutique Hotel & Restaurant, Starbucks, Glaceau vitaminwater, Valpre, Dimension Data, Woolworths, Impala Platinum, Trafigura, Coca-Cola South Africa, Experian SA, Puma Energy, Citi SA and Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa (FMCSA).
Joanne has also served as the Chairman of the Diageo Responsible Drinking Media Awards judging panel for four years.
Prior to establishing Pillar9 in 2015, Joanne was a Director and Shareholder at Meropa Communications – South Africa’s only national Public Relations company.
Pillar9 focuses on strategic reputation management, media and stakeholder relations, and issues management for leading lifestyle brands.
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I spoke to Joanne about how restaurants can minimise the impact of the lockdown on their business and how they can bounce back afterwards.
Is it irresponsible for restaurants to serve food or for diners to eat out considering COVID-19?
I think most restaurants are just trying to keep their businesses open for the long term. If that means trying to maintain operations during these times, but taking extra precautions then isn’t that survival, rather than irresponsibility?
How much responsibility should restauranteurs accept for protecting their staff and customers?
It’s up to every business, restaurant, shop and person in this country right now to protect each other. It’s been incredible to see how the nation has come together to keep each other safe.
Are restaurants’ food safety protocols sufficient to protect public safety?
Any and all restaurants should always be operating to the highest level of health, safety and hygiene every day. However, these are extenuating circumstances and sometimes not even increased levels of cleanliness can protect the public. People need to make sure that if they have travelled in the last month, or been around someone who has or is showing signs and symptoms of what could potentially be COVID-19, then they need to be responsible and stay away. We all have to work together to limit the spread and flatten the curve.
You help promote restaurants. What should restaurants be doing to promote themselves?
It’s such a tough question, and again, a fine balance between preventing the spread, and trying to ensure business continuity. There are a few channels open to business wanting to keep going – please see later question “Any suggestions for restaurants to bounce back into business after the State of Emergency has been lifted?” for some guidelines and advice.
What should restaurants not be doing to promote themselves?
Aside from franchises and big chains, most restaurants are small businesses. I don’t think restaurants should be trying to take market share from another restaurant. We’re all in this together.
If customers are looking for extra value, how can restaurants do so without discounting their service?
I’m not sure if customers are looking for value right now – people are scared and panicked, also discounting your offering puts less in the bank, at a time when there are significantly fewer customers spending with you. Any other day – sure, people want to get value for money. They want to sit somewhere beautiful, get amazing service and eat delicious food. Right now, it’s going to take more than that to entice them out.
Restaurants should be relying on credible sources for guidelines. The Department of Health (DoH), National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and World Health Organisation (WHO) have guidelines that can help to make people feel safe in a restaurant, these include things like:
• More than 1m between diners
• Increased health and safety standards
• Hand sanitizer available
• Staff to wash hands every 20 mins
• Limit touch between people – accept payment via SnapScan and tap credit cards.
Perhaps it’s also about restaurants finding solutions. So – curbside collections, food delivery options, ingredient and recipe packages. It’s also a nice opportunity for chefs to grow their profiles by providing recipes and digital videos with step-by-step guides to make the dishes.
How can customers support their favourite restaurant if they prefer to stay at home?
A number of restaurants have introduced curbside-collection or increased their delivery options. Customers should take advantage of this – same meal you love but in the comfort of your own home. Plus, you still support a restaurant, and potentially a driver who are also still trying to support their families and pay their bills.
Are food delivery services a financially viable solution for restaurants or should restaurants be offering deliveries themselves?
If restaurants don’t have their own drivers who deliver for them, then yes it is viable. Supporting the drivers from third-party companies who deliver the food will go a long way.
Do you foresee any long-term benefits following COVID-19?
Again, a tough question. And it is very early days – China and Wuhan are only starting to show signs of recovery now almost eight weeks after their COVID-19 numbers reached a critical mass. I’m hoping that it will make people more mindful in general about personal hygiene and that people will become more aware of the impact they have on the people and environment around them.
Any suggestions for restaurants to bounce back into business after the State of Emergency has been lifted?
Leverage the channels you have around you, start slow and build up.
Media relations: The power of the press cannot be underestimated. Radio stations, websites, newspapers and magazines have the ability to reach thousands of people. Embrace the power of media with interesting and relevant content.
Social media: Digital channels have seen an incredible upswing since the advent of social distancing. Keep this going and provide engaging content for your followers. Social media also provide well-priced advertising and boosting packages and allow you to really target audiences. This could be money well spent.
Stakeholder relations: Go directly to the people around you. Surrounding communities will be the first line of people to support you. So, engage with the homes and businesses in the area to let them know you are open, what you offer, and make sure you include a “book now” call to action.
Issues management: Be prepared for tough questions and situations. Prepare for the worst – what are you going to do operationally, and from a communications perspective. Make sure you mitigate the impact of negative feedback for reopening, or unfounded criticism.
Final question: What is your favourite meal at a restaurant?
Answering that would be like saying you have a favourite child. If I had to be pushed, I would say, I’d love a table laden with my favourite things… burrata Caprese and prawn pasta from Saint, Marble fries and their heavenly bread, Chef James Diack’s pumpkin gnocchi and a Panzanella salad, and for dessert Farro’s pear and almond tart. All served with a beautiful glass (or bottle) of Pinot Noir!