Serving food in COVID-19: Chef-patrons hoping to just break even

Under new COVID-19 guidelines for social distancing, restaurants are going to find it hard to make ends meet with reduced seating, while demanding to keep prices stable and all their employees on their payroll. A once booming business is now facing crippling costs

These are difficult days for restaurants, and the mandatory measures introduced by government upon allowing restaurants to open have not made it any easier.

But most restaurants seem intent on seeing the storm through, albeit struggling so far to attract enough people to their restaurants so as to make ends meet.

Speaking to some restaurant owners, these people are not after riches and instant fortune; they just want to be able to make enough money once again to be able to continue to pay their staff’s wages, their suppliers, their home loans and credit card bills.

Robert Cassar, chef patron of Root 81 in Rabat, opened immediately once the government broadened the spectrum of businesses allowed to open. “Because of the measures I had to reduce the number of covers from 55 to 30, but thus far we have struggled to make more than 10 covers on an evening,” he said.

He said that those who did visit the restaurant actually ended up spending more on drinks than they did on food. “Yes, the numbers are not economically viable,” Cassar admitted. “They are nowhere close to being enough to cover expenses.”

Cassar has four other staff members with him during service, the very bare minimum to maintain the standards of the establishment. “Opening under these circumstances is not worth it, I am still losing money every day,” he said.

And yet, he insists he will continue to open his restaurant even if the prospect of economic recovery looms far in the distance. “I believe people will start telling others that they visited Root 81 once again and that, despite all the restrictions imposed, they had a great experience. That will hopefully convince other people to overcome their fear of the pandemic and start going out to eat and enjoy themselves again.”

Cassar said many people had wished him luck many a time during the lockdown and now that he had reopened. “I am thankful for people’s well wishes,” he said. “But what we need now more than anything is for people to start coming to us again.”

Despite the financial woes, Cassar remains positive and upbeat. “I will continue to open even if all I make is 10 covers, because I believe people will slowly start realising they can enjoy a meal at a restaurant again despite the restrictions.”

Chef Robert Cassar, who runs Root 81 in Rabat
Chef Robert Cassar, who runs Root 81 in Rabat

The numbers are simply not enough

But not every restaurant owner is as positive about the current situation.

Brian, who owns a 72-cover restaurant in Sliema, said that he would not be opening any time soon, since that would see him incur even heavier losses than he has already done because of the lockdown.

“For me to open with 38 covers means I would need to bring in some seven or eight staff members each service,” he said. “As a business, I need to make a minimum of 50 covers each service just to break even, when you take into account all expenses, including purchasing wages and my lease.”

Brian said that he has been paying his full lease throughout the lockdown: €140 daily, even though they were closed. That money came out of pocket, as did part of the staff’s wages which was supplemented by the government’s financial aid. “I have thus far only lost one employee, a foreigner who decided to return to her home country when the pandemic started. But even with the government aid, there is no way I can open under these circumstances and make money.”

In fact, were he to open his restaurant, he would start losing even more money daily to pay for supplies and overheads, like electricity.”

As to how long he can sustain such losses, Brian was very clear. “With a place the size of mine, I need to have all covers available to stand a chance of making any money,” he said. “Until that changes, I will remain close, and I know my business will not survive if things do not change by the end of July.”

Chef Alain James Fenech runs The Chef’s Table
Chef Alain James Fenech runs The Chef’s Table

Get the ball rolling

Another restaurateur confirmed that operating under the mandatory measures was hard for his business. But Alain James Fenech, chef patron of the Chef’s Table in Bugibba, remained optimistic.

“I recognise why things have happened as they have and although the numbers since opening last week are not huge, I know this is a process that I must see through,” he said.

Fenech said that he had to reduce covers 22 since reopening and that made it hard to meet expenses. “And we are so far nowhere near to filling all our covers at every service, but I remain optimistic that things will get better soon.”

He said he looks forward to the government announcing the reopening of the airport, as he hopes even a trickle of incoming tourists could make a difference to his – and many others’ – business.

Fenech said he probably could not have survived thus far had it not been for an understanding to halve the monthly lease during the lockdown. “Also, I have managed to keep on paying my staff, though I am only paying them the €800 provided by the government’s financial measures.”

But even that is a lot. Like other owners, Fenech could have easily fired his staff once the lockdown started. But, with all his staff being foreigners, he realised that if he were to fire them, they would not have their visas renewed under the current measures.

“I cannot see how restaurants in Sliema and Valletta, with their sky-high daily leases, can hope to open and make ends meet under current conditions. But I believe if the airport is opened again in the coming weeks, we can remain open until enough people overcome their fear of going out and start dining out again in enough numbers.”

Fenech does not ask for much. He says he would be happy breaking even every month, being able to pay wages, suppliers and his landlord, and then having something left over, however small, for himself. “My wish is for people to realise that they are the key to the survival of my business, and many others like mine. My wish is to people start coming back to my restaurant again, even if it’s just for a plate of pasta or two. That alone could get the ball rolling again.”