Winnie Wangui speaks with players in the restaurant industry about the ups and downs in the race against a stubborn virus fast adjusting to the new reality of business.
Director-Food & Beverage Operations, Sarova Hotels & Resorts
“I’ve been with Sarova Hotels & Resorts for 15 years and we now have over 25 restaurants, bars and lounges, making the food and beverage department a big player in the group of hotels. In my over 30 years of experience, I have been a chef when diseases such as SARS, Avian Flu, Foot and Mouth disease struck, but none of those brought as devastating experiences as Covid has,” he stated.
While Sarova Hotels did not completely close its operations, they scaled down. They were among the first corporate institutions to get their staff tested as their Nairobi hotels were still occupied and the initial Ministry of Health meetings and press conferences were being held at Sarova Panafric.
“We had all our staff across the properties staying in the hotels initially as a safety measure but this strained us economically so we currently have staff staying in the hotels on a rotational basis and they also get tested every two weeks.” They also set up stipends for the staff who had been sent home to cater for their basic needs.
“The year started on such a high note for our F&B department, the projections for the first quarter were great. Then March felt like driving at top speed and suddenly having the emergency brakes on,” said Shailender.
Flame Tree Restaurant at Sarova Panafric never closed down but the capacity was reduced from 100 people to 20-30 people. Equipment to cook meals on a lower scale had to be acquired. Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort almost daily made food for close to 700 people and suddenly this was reduced to 70 people.
“We have the gigantic self-cooking German ovens, huge sufurias and if you put a few kilos of meat, it will just stick to the side. So we had to purchase pots and pans for smaller portions,” he explained.
Shailender adds that since the team was used to preparing large amounts of food at a go, some staff doubted their skills when it came to making dishes for only a few people. Tweaking the recipes and reducing the quantities to achieve the same great taste for smaller food portions was a challenge no one had anticipated.
The introduction of the QR Code menus was a challenge to some guests who don’t own smartphones or don’t understand the process. They had to print out single-use menus with fewer options because buffets had also stopped and the kitchen staff downsized tremendously. Cooking methods and durations reduced.
“Stocks for all our properties are normally sent out from the head office at Panafric. Everything stalled at first when we didn’t know how to send goods to our Masai Mara hotel, or Samburu hotel at Shaba. Our procurement processes drastically changed where we were used to buying kilos and kilos of meats to send to our properties and now we would send 1 or 2 kilos only. Milk that used to be bought in 40-litre packs was reduced to 2-litre bottles,” he shares.
The staff are currently on a 50 per cent pay and those who are at home are receiving a stipend to get them going. The alcohol ban caught the team flat-footed as they suddenly were stuck with crates of beer that would expire. Opened bottles of wine were used in cooking.
Now with things slightly opening up, Flame Tree restaurant expanded its seating to the outside section. Virtual conferences have taken out a big chunk of their revenues because there are people in conferencing facilities.
“When we started sensitising our patrons on mask-wearing, hand washing and sanitizing, some of our guests thought we were very rude saying we have lost our sense of hospitality and this battle continues to date. With the removal of self-service, our new buffet section has pre-portioned meals, or a server with a mask, face guard and gloves at every serving point, “ he reveals.
For Shailender his schedule now has him viewing buffet sections virtually, approving dishes online and sourcing and receiving vegetables using digital platforms. The only products shortages they experienced were on imported products such as ketchup, olive oil and wines. Keeping less inventory in the shelves is now a priority, menus have been shrunk to avoid wastage and to ensure that kitchen teams are lean.
Mixologist /Sommelier- Social House Nairobi
When the first case of Covid-19 was announced in Kenya, Kelvin was working in a different restaurant in Nairobi where their contracts were immediately terminated. Lucky for Kelvin, he was offered a job at the Social House two months later.
When it was announced that restaurants and eateries would close down, Kelvin’s first instinct was to go back home in Nanyuki and wait out the situation. He, however, opted to stay in Nairobi and embarked on an online platform where he was offering training on how to mix drinks and create cocktails at home.
This creativity landed him partnerships with some alcohol brands and this is how he was able to stay afloat the two months he was out of work.
Soon afterwards, the government enforced a ban on alcohol and for a mixologist, this meant he had to get creative. “I was relieved that the Social House never closed. So when the alcohol ban was effected we were selling mocktails and other soft drinks,” he shares.
“Changing gloves after each serve and washing hands afterwards has now become mandatory for us. We use spray guns to sanitise the bar and seats every half hour and we no longer have seats at the counter making interactions with our patrons almost impossible,” he mentions.
Cocktail making is fun and Charles enjoyed having patrons join him behind the counter learning how to mix their drinks but this doesn’t happen anymore. He further shares “I miss this part of my job where I would have good times teaching patrons and interacting with them. Now I’m stuck behind the counter and I only leave to meet customers at their tables if they request to speak to the mixologist.”
Kelvin counts himself lucky to still have a job as most of his counterparts in the industry are at home and need support.
“When I first started at Social House, we were on a 20 per cent pay cut but this did not last long as we are currently receiving our full salaries,” he shares.
The long hours attributed to one shift a day for the staff leaves them worn out at the end of the day and he hopes the situation will soon improve so that they can go back to the two shifts a day model.
While the seating arrangement was changed to allow for social distancing, reducing it from 100 people to 40 people Kelvin mentioned that the bar manages to get a good number of patrons daily.
“Corona beer has been unavailable in the market for three months which I believe is because of the situation in South America as they were badly hit by the pandemic,” he reveals.
Kelvin mentions, “A challenge we constantly face is when guests do not cooperate when we have to sanitize them every thirty minutes especially here at Inca Bar & Restaurant. Hygiene was already a major part of our restaurant even before the pandemic and some of the processes in inventory and receiving goods have helped us mitigate the chances of contamination.”
For Inca Bar & Restaurant, some of their wine stocks that couldn’t be sold were incorporated into meals in the kitchen.
“Draft beers normally have a short lifespan and they were discarded,” he stated.
He had to put his plans for this year on hold after losing his job and having to rely on his savings.
“The situation has made it difficult for me to continue with my plans because my savings are too little and the situation in our country has not improved. No one knows how the next months are going to be. It is a difficult place to be in life,” he admits.
Head of Operations, Amaica Restaurant
Amaica has three branches across Nairobi- Peponi Road, The Airport and The UN.
“First our stocks were in jeopardy and being a global pandemic, there was nowhere to transfer the stocks. When the airport was shut down there was no business, when the UN New York office directed for closure in all its offices, our UN branch had no business. Our Peponi Road branch remained open offering deliveries, however, this was a challenge for us as we were not strong in the take-out sector plus it was challenging to offer fine dining in take-out style,” says Charles.
Food delivery didn’t work for Amaica and they resorted to selling pre-cooked items in larger quantities such as mixed vegetables, meats, and sides which also didn’t work as well as they had hoped.
Their beer stocks brought upon losses after they expired between March and June.
“We opted to sell the perishable products at throwaway prices to our staff, patrons and friends. When things started to slowly resume, our beer supplier exchanged the expired beers with those with a farther expiry date,” he divulged.
Manpower, cost of production and expenditures were instantly reduced. “We acquired more equipment that would aid in cost-saving while saving us time and manpower,” he adds.
The airport and Peponi road branches are operational despite the dismal number of passengers and diners.
Some staff that worked at the UN branch which is still closed moved back upcountry. Those that remained in Nairobi are still working although on 15-day rotational shifts and they are currently on a 20 per cent pay cut without allowances.
“We surprisingly did not experience any shortages in produce when we reopened because there was not that much business to create a high demand. We experienced the opposite. Lots of Kenyans went into farming anticipating demand but after harvest, they did not have anywhere to take them because restaurants weren’t busy. So we would frequently have people show up here with their cars packed with vegetables, eggs and more attempting to sell,” shared Charles.
He further states that before Covid, the Peponi restaurant would serve up to 120 people a day which has come down to 40-50. The closure of corporates also hit them hard as this made up a big chunk of their lunchtime crowd.
Charles sees digital scannable menus staying in the industry more permanently and table setting with cutlery for fine dining restaurants changing to reduce chances of contamination. He also suggests that staff in the industry might have to work for long hours until business improves where restaurants can afford more manpower.
Charles adds “Another industrial shift that has happened is the cashless system which has unfortunately affected the tipping habits of patrons.”
For the Amaica staff, they had to learn new skills due to the shift rotation where a cashier is also trained on how the procurement system works, how to prepare coffees and serve at the bar because the restaurant can only afford a few staff members.
“For our airport branch, the business has reduced by 80 per cent. We used to make up to Sh400,000 a day and now we are down to Sh30,000 a day,” he shares.
For Charles, his is a high-pressure job which Covid-19 has affected adversely.
“I was always handling emergencies and firefighting. Flight delays resorted to sourcing for additional supplies, impromptu conferences at the UN branch where the catering confirmation would come to us late would send me in a frenzy trying to make everything work, making sure our restaurants have everything they need during such times. But since March, this pressure has died down,” he explains.