As thousands take to the street for the #jobssavelives restaurant protest today, celebrity chef and restaurateur Reuben Riffel says it feels like government is treating South Africans like children with its stringent covid-19 regulations.
In an exclusive Food For Mzansi interview the owner of the Riffel restaurant empire says, “We are left in a position where we can’t really make our own decisions, like when to go out and have a drink or a smoke. It has become a bit paternalistic.”
While Riffel acknowledges that “covid-19 has been cruel and the hospitality industry has struggled to grapple with the bitter effects of the global pandemic”, he struggles to make sense of some lockdown regulations, including the controversial alcohol sales ban.
At the moment, restaurants from across the country are blocking roads outside their premises by dragging tables and chairs into the streets. The protest, called “Million Seats on the Streets”, is a desperate cry for help by the industry’s 800 000 staffers whose jobs are on the line because of stringent lockdown regulations. It is led by the Restaurant Association of South Africa (Rasa).
During a live Facebook video interview with Food For Mzansi’s editor, Dawn Noemdoe, a distraught Riffel says he was already forced to close the doors of the once popular Reuben’s at the five-star IVY Villa Hotel & Spa in Johannesburg. His other restaurants in Franschhoek and Sandton – both carrying his world-famous name – are also under severe pressure.
“There is no end in sight, really, and that is just the saddest thing,” he says. “The restaurant industry, in general, is not like big companies where there is lot of cash just lying in the bank. Businesses usually operate within small margins.”
In his own empire at least 150 jobs are at risk. “The reality is we are going to have to retrench quite a lot of people just to keep the business going or to allow us to start over once this whole thing passes by.”
The severity of the situation has also trickled down to farm level, he says. Not only has the coronavirus crippled the restaurant industry, it has severely impacted suppliers, especially small-scale farmers.
“It goes far beyond the 150 that I have listed. From the wine industry, food service industry, lots of industries rely on our businesses. Through no fault of their own, they are also in the red.”
Opportunities to grow beyond covid-19
The virus-ravaged economy and related retrenchments are just a sign of times still to come, Riffel says. “I just hear news of more layoffs, or more people being forced to take pay-cuts of more than 50%. I mean, what does that equate to in your personal finances, especially if you also have commitments?”
Riffel says while it is easy to blame government for, among others, the restaurant crisis, there are still opportunities to grow.
“The reality is, though, when are the borders going to open? You (now) have got to think about how you structure your business going forward. Even once you start (re-)opening (post covid-19), we need to be able to look at our offering and ask if it is viable.”
“The restaurant industry is not like big companies where lot of cash IS just lying in the bank. Businesses usually operate within small margins.” – Reuben Riffel
South Africans remain a resilient people, he says, with the innate ability to overcome adversities. “The reality really kicked (one) into survival mode. Your approach is never going to work if you creep into a hole and wait for it to pass.”
“But together we will get through this,” says Riffel. He calls on all South Africans to stand in solidarity with the restaurant, hospitality, wine and tourism industries. “We have to stick together at this stage, especially. It is not healthy to just scream at government. This is an opportunity to renew and maybe even start over again.”