Johan Liebenberg

‘New reality’ challenges restaurant industry to reinvent itself

Although South Africans were generally elated about the news that, after three months of lockdown, they can now once again enjoy a meal outside the confines of their homes, many people are still reluctant to venture out to an eatery because of the spike in COVID-19 cases in the country.

Indeed, while restaurants have started opening their doors, for most of them it is very challenging times, stresses Natasha Sideris, founder & creative director of The Tashas Group. Her commitment as a founder of The Restaurant Collective, a collaborative effort to uplift the sit-down restaurant industry in South Africa as well as share best practice, is testament to her passion for the sector so that the entire industry in the country thrives during this time as well as in the future.

Natasha Sideris, founder & creative director, The Tashas Group

“We are notoriously an industry that does not have an opportunity to save cash for a rainy day. Getting through the current period where sales are down, will be critical to the survival of a lot of restaurants. I believe we will definitely see a decline in the number of restaurants with many closures already reported.”

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic may well be a nail in the coffin for the restaurant industry in our country, she reckons. “It has made evident many issues within the industry that need to be addressed urgently and collectively in order for the industry and the ecosystem within which it operates to survive the current situation and thrive well into the future.

                 Maintaining strict compliance protocols

“Directly and indirectly, the restaurant industry employs at least 500 000 people. The impact of every single restaurant reaches out like a spider’s web affecting the livelihood of hundreds of others – our suppliers, farmers, SMMEs, factories producing syrups and sauces, small wholesalers, digital media agencies, designers and shopfitters, pest control companies, plumbers and electricians, delivery platforms, media platforms like Eat Out and Zomato… the list is endless. This extends further.

“Malls, where most restaurants are based, are social places; people visit to mingle, to meet. We are large drawcards in this milieu, especially in urban areas where people have limited living space. We fulfil a crucial social role,” Sideris explains.

Adapt…or die

During lockdown, tashas’ management spent a lot of time thinking about the business, she adds. “Our new mantra is ‘sophisticated simplicity’. Gone are the days of abundance for abundance sake. It’s time to simplify and focus on what matters most – providing even better food, in beautiful environments, engagingly delivered, and at the same time being mindful of our environment and our impact on this fragile planet. It’s time to be much more mindful,” she stresses.

It is also important to give customers “experiences” – like tastings or events – to bring them back in, she adds. “Like I said before, restaurants fulfil a crucial social role in our society, and these kinds of ‘experiences’ give people another reason to get together.” While tashas is lucky in that the group is not reliant on alcohol sales, for those that are, innovation will be most important, she reckons.  “This said; innovation will be difficult as it often requires some capital injection which, at the moment, no one has.

“The main way to ensure customers’ confidence and lure people back is by maintaining very strict protocols but still make the space feel like an escape – it’s a delicate balance. Training staff is critical in order to make sure that we maintain compliance. And our customers also need to be helpful and comply. It makes our job much easier when they do. The other challenge is delivering a beautiful experience with genuine hospitality.”

Sideres believes that, going forward, deliveries will form a part of the norm for restaurants “and even fine dining establishments will need to deliver”.

“The new reality is that we need to be even more efficient at running our businesses. We work on incredibly low margins, so taking stock of every expense and assuring that we are on track at the same time as giving our customers the best experience will be critical,” Sideris concludes.




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