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 – either closing shop or resorting to desperate measures to stay afloat.
Zelda Furstenburg, Owner of Liquid Pulse Marketing & Communications, is personally invested in the hospitality industry representing restaurant and travel destinations, and also select winemakers who supply them. Her clients include the prestigious Blaauwklippen Vineyards, De Grendel Wine & Restaurant, Elgin Vintners, Kunjani Wines, Restaurant & Villas, and Vondeling Wines. I approached Zelda for her professional opinion on how the industry can protect their businesses during and after the COVID-19 lockdown.
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.
The lockdown rules keep changing for restaurants, how do you stay abreast of them all?
I stay informed and updated with what is happening around us – not only with COVID-19, but also in the hospitality industry in general. This information is fed through to our clients on a daily basis to ensure everyone stays up to date. I communicate this through WhatsApp groups to senior management, who also filter this information through to their employees via internal WhatsApp groups. Furthermore, I keep my finger on the social media pulse and handle all incoming requests and messages as soon as possible.
We have created internal newsletters about COVID-19 protocols which are then distributed to employees. We are communicating externally with all our clients’ databases through e-letters to keep their audiences informed about operations and any new developments with regards to the services they offer. Notices of services being temporarily suspended are being communicated on our clients’ websites too and press releases being disseminated to keep the media and industry organisations informed.
Is it irresponsible for restaurants to serve food or for diners to eat out considering COVID-19?
In light of the seriousness of the COVID-19 across the globe, it is my belief that all South Africans should do whatever they can to #flattenthecurve. This means temporarily suspending their services during this time where SA’s positively identified cases have not skyrocketed yet. So no, I find it too irresponsible to stay open during this crucial time, especially taking into account that our public health system and the general infrastructure of our country is severely fragile.
How much responsibility should restauranteurs accept for protecting their staff and customers?
All South Africans are entitled to a safe working environment. There is so much talk about corporate social responsibility and the phrase gets used lightly and all too often simply to boost organisations’ image with the public and media. We can’t claim to be socially responsible in our corporate environments yet expect our hospitality workforce, who often makes use of public transport which is densely populated on a daily basis, to come to work. It should be people before profits, now more than ever before.
Are restaurants’ food safety protocols sufficient to protect public safety?
I cannot speak for everyone. I have had intense discussions with all my hospitality clients during the past week to get them to halt their public services immediately. Blaauwklippen Vineyards and Kunjani Wines & Restaurant in Stellenbosch have closed their operations since they attract large groups of foreign visitors on a daily basis, especially from Europe which is now the epicentre of the virus. De Grendel Wines & Restaurant in Cape Town have also temporarily shut down for the same reason. Vondeling Wines in Voor-Paardeberg closed their tasting room temporarily and although they don’t have a restaurant, weddings are one of their main income streams and brides-to-be are cancelling their weddings, so you can imagine the impact on wine farms that offer a whole range of hospitality services, including accommodation.
Simply spacing tables in restaurants far apart and limiting their patrons to 50 at a time are not sufficient steps – what about the serving staff that has to lean over patrons and tables to touch the glassware and crockery that were used by patrons? Keeping a safe distance of 2 to 3 meters is simply not possible. What about the sculler in the kitchen that needs to wash those dishes? All the plastic utensils and bowls that get used in a kitchen? The number of times a walk-in fridge door gets opened daily? It has been proven that COVID-19 can survive on stainless steel and plastic surfaces for longer periods than on any other material, and most kitchens are equipped with stainless steel surfaces and basins. It is simply impractical to disinfect a surface after every plate of food has left the kitchen. What about guests touching bathroom doors and handles, light switches, taps and basins, chairs…The risk is simply too high for restaurants to remain open.
You help businesses promote themselves. What should restaurants be doing to promote themselves?
The President addressed the nation on Sunday. We don’t have all the answers and solutions yet. What I do know for sure, is that the public commends those establishments that have decided to close their operations and they take it very seriously. Our clients are receiving loads of positive message from the public and their clients to congratulate them with their decisions to close. I believe this builds trust with customers, and it is our hope that those customers will return once this pandemic has passed.
Some restaurants are offering home delivery services of cooked meals and wine farms are including a bottle of wine. This requires much less staff to be at the workplace. At the moment most restaurants aren’t geared for this, unfortunately. Ordering systems need to be established as well as logistical arrangements that should be put in place. Unfortunately, the smaller businesses aren’t all in a position to do so, but some restaurants are able to serve their immediate neighbourhoods in this manner. Very importantly, they should keep safety and hygiene in mind when delivering meals to customers. At the moment there is a shortage of facemasks and gloves, but once we have found our balance and once we have enough supplies again, I believe we will bounce back and be able to come up with other strategies to serve our customers and keep businesses afloat.
What should restaurants not be doing to promote themselves?
It is simple – they should not be operational.
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How can customers support their favourite restaurant if they prefer to stay at home?
If you can order a take out from a restaurant, tip them as you have never tipped them before. A lot of staff earn a commission on sales, so the impact will be dire for them. With fewer tips and less commission, a generous tip will be most welcome. Buy a gift certificate for someone who can use it again at a later stage, and then buy another one!
Think of birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations and instead of buying another pair of socks or hand cream, rather buy them an experience. Buy wine from your wine farms directly. Most wine farms offer online shopping and delivery door-to-door nationwide. By buying from the wine farms directly, you cut out the middleman (retailer and wholesaler), ensuring the farmer gets the highest profit margin on his products. South Africans should also support local products now more than ever.
Stop with the Prosecco hype and order your favourite local bubbly instead. Not only will you be drinking a superior quality product, but you will be supporting our own industry. In the Western Cape tourism is largely extended to the agricultural industry.
We can’t only talk about the serving staff in restaurants, we need to think about the impact of the pandemic on global wine sales and how it will affect our labour force. Clients are getting cancellations for containers of wine that were destined for Europe, so there will be a huge amount of wine staying in the country instead of leaving our borders. And if you are self-isolating, you are probably going to need some wine to cope with the kids in any way!
But on a more serious note – leave your favourite wine farm and restaurant a positive review on Facebook, Google or TripAdvisor. And please engage with restaurants and wine farms during downtime – like, comment and share their posts. This is always appreciated. Did you go to your favourite restaurant for dinner and forget to post the pic? Post it now and tag the restaurant. Sign up to their newsletters. Be kind.
Do you foresee any longterm benefits following COVID-19?
Should this get out of hand in South Africa, which is highly probable, it will take a very long time to recover financially. What I’ve seen happening now already, is that communities are standing together to help each other. One person in the street may go out to buy supplies for his neighbours, people are taking turns do so to help each other. Others are ordering their groceries online to be delivered at home, and they order enough for their employees such as domestic workers and gardeners as well, and then deliver it to their homes so that they, too, can limit the use of public transport and taxis to go out for supplies.
As with all other crises in South Africa, our hope is that this pandemic can unite us as a nation. No one is exempt from being infected. As a result of the severe drought the Western Cape experienced in recent years, I believe that people have changed their behaviour for good with regards to using water sparingly. The way we think about water now is the long term effect of the drought. Hopefully, an escalation in public sanitation and hygiene will be a long term effect of COVID-19. And although I cannot foresee it, we can only hope for better public healthcare in South Africa.
Final question: What would be your bucket list food & wine pairing?
An ice-cold bottle of Silverthorne Jewel Box MCC to start off with. Then the best piece of ribeye steak on the braai with potatoes and onions baked over the coals in foil parcels served with lots of butter and sour cream. And of course, a great bottle of De Grendel Amandelboord Pinotage to enjoy with the braai. Seeing that it is my last supper, I will overindulge with a slice of rich, dark, moist and decadent Death-by-Chocolate cake, and a chilled bottle of Delheim Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest. I’ll be good to go then.