Let me describe my most recent meltdown.

I am at the stove cooking. I reach out for the white wine to add a splash of flavour to my mushroom sauce. I have been eking out this last bottle from the cellar (the right-hand cupboard in the TV room) for my sundowners for nearly a week now, which is not recommended even if you do not pretend to be a connoisseur. 

The bottle is empty. It is finished, klaar. After a rough week of jaw-dropping Zondo testimony and the zombie-like revival of wealth tax talk, I do not react well to this admittedly First World problem. I am also working on what I calculate to be about the 600th meal I have catered for, prepped, planned, advised on or cooked from scratch since lockdowns began. My language is profane. My mood is wretched.

I really cannot wait for the day when, newly vaccinated as part of the promised Second Phase, I am freed from my medically advised isolation and back inside a good restaurant for dinner: A restaurant where I will linger over my food at a white-clothed table and sip my wine chosen from an impressive cellar. It is likely I will tip fulsomely even if the service does not warrant it.

But will there even be any decent restaurants left by the time I’m cleared for mingling. Will I even be able to afford such an outing?

Waitressing at a popular steak house in Sea Point supported me all through university years. The owner was a fascist, literally a black-shirted, diehard fan of Mussolini, but a 10 per cent service charge on every bill during my freelance shift paid for my rent and food, helped me buy my first car, took me overseas. It was hard work but it taught me about customers, bosses, and the restaurant business.

Later in my life I would sometimes fantasize about opening my own bistro. In my bookshelf is an old copy of Leith’s Guide to Setting up and Running a Restaurant. Its introduction warns: ‘Owning a restaurant can bring moments of sublime pressure, years of satisfaction and years of sheer terror and heartache.’ I knew I wasn’t really up for that. 

In recent years, until lockdown, a national restaurant directory paid me to visit specific cafés or restaurants and write up my impressions of their food, service and décor. A fair sampling of the menu usually cost me more than I was paid but it got me out and about trying places I didn’t normally go to.

Today, though, I am one of those people not going into any restaurant at all. Occasionally I order takeaways. But there are very few meals that can rise above their Uber or Mr Delivery journeys, so it’s not usually a pleasurable experience.

The guilt weighs heavily on me. I know I am not helping the restaurant sector cope with the battering meted out by hard lockdowns, the booze ban and the too-tight curfews that government has imposed in its attempts to mitigate the effect of the Covid virus. 

Largest decrease

The latest Stats SA figures show that the total income generated by the food and beverages industry decreased by 36.3% in November 2020 compared with the same month a year earlier. The largest decrease was recorded for bar sales (down 54.3%) and the main contributors to the sector’s overall decrease were restaurants and coffee shops, down 51.3%.

When alcohol sales often make the difference between breaking even or failure, how do you keep your restaurant going? When the rush on orders takes place after 7pm and your staff have to be ready to head home at 8pm, how do you keep your business going? 

The curfew and alcohol restraints could be lifted today or tomorrow – but another blow has already been delivered to the sector by our interventionist Minister of Employment and Labour.

In deference no doubt to his foresight-challenged union partners, Minister Thulas Nxesi has extended an agreementwith the Bargaining Council for the Fast Food, Restaurant, Catering and Allied Trades to all employers and employees in the restaurant and the fast food sector. Previously they wereregulated under a less-onerous sectoral determination.

Employers will now be required among other things to implement a mandatory increase in hourly wages for various workers and an 1.5% increase on those wages from May, provide employees with one week’s wages – a December bonus – for every 12 consecutive months worked, pay a R17.50 monthly stipend to workers required to wash their own uniforms, and also pay various levies imposed by the Council.

Lovely for the workers and the council, if you can manage this sudden 16% increase on your overhead costs in the midst of one of the worst business years you’ve ever had. Sorry for you – and all your employees and customers if you can’t.

In his ABC of French Food, Len Deighton, cookery and history book writer, spy novelist, film producer and graphic artist (Golly, I love this man), describes how restaurants developed from the specialised and tightly licensed cook shops or ‘traiteurs’ of the eighteenth century, which cooked food that town-dwellers could take away to eat either at home or at a table provided by their host.

The story is a timeless one.

In 1765 one licensed soup shop began selling a special dish it called ‘restaurant’, because of its ‘restorative’ qualities. The other traiteurs saw this as unfair competition because this dish wasn’t in fact a soup but a meat and sauce meal. They lost their case but fought back by advertising their own innovative ‘restaurant’ dishes. Their customers began to call such places offering a choice of dishes and comfortable seating at tables, restaurants.

When the French revolution came a couple of decades later many chefs from the grand houses were put out of work, but many radicals ‘who knew how to manipulate the revolution to their own advantage’ says Deighton, were enriched. ‘The Revolution spawned bureaucrats by the hundreds and they had to eat.’  So restaurants flourished and restaurant cuisine took off.

Entertaining expenses

I’m immediately reminded of the revelations in 2006 of the former Gauteng Finance MEC Paul Mashatile’s very expensive (or so it seemed then) meals at Auberge Michel, Ritrovo, The Butcher’s Grill; all paid for by the province but ‘permissible’ because entertaining expenses were ‘in the budget’. 

It may be that the lavish use of the public purse by fat-cat politicians and bloated bureaucrats of the National Democratic Revolution will keep some posh nosh providers and fast food outlets in business in the years to come. But wouldn’t it be so much better, for both my personal dining-out prospects and the country’s unemployment figures and economy, if government simply stopped imposing yet another set of heavy-handed regulations on this sector – and every other?  Or even did away with some?

Such a rational reform move, however, is not in the ANC playbook.

Even as restaurants scurry to comply with the latest demands, I fear that a villainous BEE-compliance requirement hovers in the wings to deliver a final blow … and a cadre somewhere quivers in anticipation of bankruptcy bargains.

[Picture: Kevin Grieve on Unsplash]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.