Johannesburg, 20 July 2020: The food service industry has been among the hardest hit by the Covid-19 lockdown, with an estimated 1.8m people affected across supply chains across the country.  The slowdown has had a dire knock-on effect on the industry, stretching from restaurant owners to delivery drivers, farm workers, pest-controllers, and cleaning staff to name just a few. Thousands only just eking a living prior to the lockdown, will have joined the ranks of South Africa’s unemployed, now above 30%.

A newly formed consortium of South Africa’s biggest food service suppliers, namely Unilever Food Solutions, RCL FOODS, McCain Food Service and Tiger Brands Out of Home, have partnered with leading food service distributor, Bidfood, to pool resources and in an effort to support the restoration of the industry.

According to Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, approximately 30% of the country’s restaurants have already been forced to permanently close their doors. The re-imposed curfew of 21h00 will further stifle the trade that surviving restaurants have limped along with since they reopened on June 17, 2020 with the announcement of Level 3 lockdown, possibly forcing more closures.

The return to trade has been predictably slow and reticent, and as we enter the peak of COVID-19 infections, this will likely persist. A recent survey conducted by the Restaurant Collective (RIC) among its sit-down restaurant members found that a week after opening, over half of the restaurants had cut their staff complement by more than 50%.

The consortium is developing various initiatives to support both chain and independent restaurants to rebuild their businesses. “This collaboration has at its heart the many people which the restaurant and food service industry employs, many of whom are family breadwinners. Our priority has been to engage and partner with government agencies such as the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) and the Federation Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (FEDHASA) as well as the Restaurant Collective lobby group,  and to communicate and promote safe operations in the new COVID-19 reality,” says Stewart Jones from RCL FOODS.

Together with the TBCSA and the Restaurant Collective, a free app has been developed communicating and simplifying the management of the COVID regulations for restaurants, whilst providing clear guidance to keep patrons as safe as possible in accordance with the National Department of Health, The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and World Health Organisations (WHO) guidelines.

Further to this, a multi-media campaign is being developed to drive support for all local restaurants.  The #OneMealManyThanks campaign aims to educate South African consumers about the millions of people that benefit from every meal purchased. From farm to fork, every time a meal is purchased consumers contribute to someone’s livelihood. Whether consumers stay home and order in or chose to dine out, South Africans are encouraged to play their part to help save the industry.

Whilst some dine-in restaurants have adapted to lockdown conditions by offering home delivery services, for most independent operations and the smaller local eateries, providing a delivery-only service is simply not an option, as without the margin- adding alcoholic beverages, desserts, and coffees, their businesses are not sustainable. Waiting staff who still have jobs have suffered substantial pay cuts. Franchisees and their staff, while a little more secure, have also had to dramatically reduce salaries and some have had to implement a reduced work week.

“In many outlets, approximately 28 staff members directly benefit from every meal ordered. These are people who are reliant on their jobs in order to enable them to provide for their families, and even to stave off hunger, which will now be affecting thousands who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Chefs and various restaurant owners have recently taken to social media to highlight the number of staff their establishments employ, in a plea to raise awareness and support,” says Catharina Bester, from McCain Food Service.

Patrons’ concerns about infection are of course a barrier, and this is where the emphasis of efforts to normalise the industry must naturally focus. “Restaurant managers are acutely aware that without these measures being strictly imposed, they may lose the opportunity to regain the confidence of their patrons,” says Jones, adding that most restaurants are diligently working on implementing safety measures such as spacing tables according to the recommended distance, providing hand sanitiser and wiping down tables and card machines with every new customer.

Towards the end of the year, when the Coronavirus curve is expected to start dipping, the hope is that restaurant trade will start to pick up substantially. And although some restaurants won’t reopen, those doing their best to survive are leaning on the support of the rest of the food industry and their valued consumers, which are doing their collective best to mitigate the impact of the lockdown for the benefit of all in the sector.