In March, Ashish Ugal arrived in Kenya as the new executive chef at Trademark and Tribe hotels. He had barely been in Kenya for a week when news of the coronavirus pandemic hitting Kenya spread, and restaurants were forced to close their doors.
The Tribe took the opportunity to renovate while its sister facility Trademark Hotel remained open.
That was just about five months ago. Chef Ashish and a team of about 20 have been working and living in the hotel full-time.
Since the lockdown, it has become imperative for the hospitality industry to find new ways of surviving the pandemic while lowering the risk of contagion amongst its staff and in turn guests. For Trademark, the first solution was simple. All staff on duty live and work within the hotel, as a majority of wait-staff and kitchen crew have to use public transport to and from work, risking contracting the virus during daily commute despite being tested regularly.
This is just the first raft of measures the hotel industry has had to absorb to salvage crumbling revenues.
At Mövenpick Hotel & Residences Nairobi, Chef Dennis “Mgenge” Mwaniki, says it is not business as usual.
Because of social distancing in the kitchen, the team of chefs has been reduced to two. A pastry chef is working in the kitchen at any given point from an original team of nine.
Dennis who is a Sous Chef, reports to work in the morning, goes in to take a shower, a second bath for the morning, sanitise before donning his uniform which is cleaned and sanitised by the hotel and wears a fresh mask as well as a face shield.
When he gets to the kitchen on the 24th floor of the hotel, he has to scrub his hands to his elbow, sanitise and put on a fresh pair of latex gloves.
All surfaces in the kitchen are cleaned and sanitised by the manager on duty and only authorised personnel are allowed to cross certain areas of the kitchen. “Only David (the demi chef) and I are allowed into the walk-in freezer,” Chef Dennis explains.
The wait-staff only goes as far as a certain area to collect food to deliver to waiting diners.
“This reduces the risk of contamination and also makes it easier to trace and contain infection in case of anything,” he says.
For this interview, we are taken through the safety processes which begin with us cleaning our hands, sanitising them as well as our equipment, and donning latex gloves before we are allowed to watch the new cooking process, from a distance.
At the washing area, dishes used by guests are now first dropped into a disinfectant solution before they are washed with hot water and soap.
“The server who has to wear gloves will collect the plates from the restaurant and bring them here. They will drop them into one of these containers. They will then take off their gloves and put them in this bin, wash the dishes, then put on fresh gloves,” says Chef Dennis.
In some high-end hotels, the cutlery is run in a dishwasher at 80 degrees Celsius.
Chef Dennis further adds that for each table the waiter serves, they have to swap out gloves.
“You cannot serve two sets of guests wearing the same set of gloves,” he explains.
This system of handwashing, an alcohol-based sanitiser, and fresh latex gloves for every meal and guest is replicated across the high-end hotels we visit. “The cost of tomatoes and onions is cheaper now than what we are spending on sanitisers, masks, and gloves,” says Shaileen Shah, general manager at the Trademark with a smile.
With dozens of orders coming in every hour, the kitchen crew runs through quite a high number of latex gloves.
This is in addition to the compulsory mask change every four hours or when it gets damp—whichever comes first.
“It is a cost we have had to absorb as a hotel,” says Shaileen.
This is in addition to the cost of spraying down the furniture at the restaurants, hourly disinfecting of the lifts as well as all luggage coming in with guests checking into the hotel for a stay. “Compared to when Covid-19 started, the cost of personal protective equipment (PPEs) and masks has come down,” she adds.
Having worked in Canada during the SARS outbreak, Shaileen and her team have employed protocols similar to those used in the containment of SARS.
Across at Mövenpick Hotel, Chef Dennis states that the safety protocols is something management has had to deal with as an additional cost.
The hospitality industry has lost Sh80 billion as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and closures. To reopen, the hotels were required to test all their staff before they get a go-ahead to resume operation. This was the hotel’s costs.
Besides, there was the requirement to space the tables and seating arrangements to more than 1.5 metres apart. This halved the number of people that a restaurant or hotel could dine at any given point.
For instance, Mövenpick could host up to 75 at their rotating restaurant called The View, but currently it can only host 34 people.
The Harvest at Trademark Hotel could host 120 people, but under the new directive, only 55 can be in the restaurant at any given point.
At Ibis Style Hotel’s Kilele Restaurant, the approach to dining and food was a more casual dining platter style.
Our Friday afternoon visit finds them dealing with several guests. The process here is no different, we are donned in white coats, hairnets and we go through the hand-cleaning and sanitising process.
Each section of the kitchen has only one person operating in it allowing for the social distancing. They are all donning colourful masks, as they make their assigned dishes.
Ian Iganza, a Sous Chef at Ibis, explains that fresh gloves for every dish, constant hand-washing, and sanitising are the norm.
For our meal, he opts to make us a T-Bone steak. He seasons the meat, using a red cutting board before placing it in the grill.
As the meat is searing, he takes off and discards the gloves, washes his hands, dries them, and squirts some sanitiser on them as he proceeds to put in a fresh set of gloves. When the meat is ready, he uses a brown cutting board to place it on.
“Each food in the kitchen has a different cutting board. Raw red meat is on the red, cooked is on the brown, green is for raw vegetables,” he explains.
Once the meat is resting, almost as though it is reflex, the gloves off and discarded, hand washing ritual repeated and he embarks on making French fries. All wait-staff in addition to the face masks, wear face shields as an extra precaution.
In addition to cleaning and sanitisation of surfaces, vegetables that are usually consumed in raw forms such as salads or in sandwiches are now going through multiple cleaning and sanitisation processes.
Trademark and Mövenpick first disinfect the vegetables at the point they are received in the loading bay.
They are then brought up into the kitchen where they are cleaned with vegetable soap or disinfectant and stored or used.
“They have to be cleaned from the point they are received because we don’t know who and where they have been handled from before they arrived,” says Chef Dennis.
“We use a disinfectant powder to clean the vegetables once they arrive in the kitchen after the initial cleaning at the loading area,” says Chef Ashish, as he shows us the white powder that is a food-grade disinfectant.
It is weighed out and mixed with water to clean the vegetables for that extra sense of safety.
The kitchen at Trademark is banquet style, meaning it is quite large allowing them to have more people within the kitchen while socially distancing compared to the rest.
For guests who are staying within the Trademark, there are tables outside the rooms for placing used cutlery and each room has bags were linen and laundry are placed and sealed into before being sent out to the laundry area.
This has also meant the hotel has had to invest in PPEs for housekeeping as well as those working in the laundry area. The large industrial laundry machines use steam in addition to disinfectant solution fed directly into the machines for all laundry load which is then heat-dried and steam ironed.
As the hotels and the sector hope to recover, Google’s Covid-19 Mobility report, as of August 7, 2020, shows there was an improvement in the number of visitors to retail and recreation areas which includes restaurants.
The number had dropped by nearly half in the first months of the pandemic but has since improved 28 percent. This is still 18 percent less than the number of visitors pre-Covid.
According to Shaileen, the industry will have to grapple with the effects of Covid-19 for a long time and to survive, they must rethink how they do business and seek new revenue streams including being temporary holding centres for guests who have arrived in the country and have no homes to isolate in.