Anna Trapido: What becomes of communal dining after Coronavirus?

By , 26 May 2020

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There is no point in sugar coating the situation. All over the world restaurants as we currently know them are being decimated by COVID-19 and its associated lockdown restrictions. In South Africa pandemic-specific problems have been set atop an already ailing economy within a culinary context which, even at the best of times, has operated on gossamer-thin profit margins.

In mid-April 2020, the Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA) surveyed thousands of members about their financial position. Speaking to the Financial Mail on April 23rd RASA Chief Executive Officer Wendy Alberts commented that: “Answers overwhelmingly showed that restaurants have been left on their own and are facing imminent closure. Only 3% of those that responded said they had accessed financial help from banks in the form of loans… None has received money from the UIF or rental discounts from landlords. Most do not have working capital to reopen in the future and many have such high debt they will probably have to go into liquidation. We are going to see a whole transformation of our industry in the near future.”

Such a transformation is not just a foodie fashionista cause for concern. Grace Harding, spokesperson for South African hospitality industry lobby group, The Restaurant Collective, points out that: “Directly and indirectly, we employ at least half a million people. The impact of every single restaurant reaches out like a spider’s web affecting the livelihood of hundreds of others – our suppliers: farmers, SMMEs, factories producing syrups and sauces, small wholesalers, digital media agencies, designers and shopfitters, pest control, plumbers and electricians, delivery platforms, media platforms like Eat Out and Zomato… the list is endless.”

Since the 1 May transition from Level 5 to 4, home food delivery has been allowed but not necessarily viable given the high cost of most third-party distribution services. Wendy Alberts observed that “restaurants are evaluating costs, not having been able to trade for five weeks. The steep cost of Uber Eats, which asks outlets up to 30% commission on each meal ordered, as well as Mr D, which charged 22% in the past, are eating into their profit margins. For the consumer, a 30% commission plus a delivery fee – which Uber Eats also charges – means that a R70 hamburger could end up costing more than R100.”

For many restaurants there will be no post-pandemic period. The survivors have a long way to go and difficult transitions ahead. As Coco Reinarhz, chef-patron of Epicure, Sandton, Johannesburg says: “I am not being pessimistic, just realistic when I say that we may not get to Level 1 (when sit down dining in restaurants can be reopened) before November. And, even then, within those restrictions running a restaurant in the classic sense will be extremely difficult. Regulations state that there needs to be a metre distance left and right between each table which means that 2/3rds of my seating is gone. Such radically different spacing will completely change the underlying business calculations about what one has to charge for a meal. Restaurant prices will almost certainly have to increase as volume decreases while fixed costs like rent remain in place. Everything is going to be very, very difficult and very, very different. “

When Level 1 is finally achieved there will almost certainly have to be a re-negotiation of epicurean interactions with wary returning diners. Hygiene measures will not only need to be stepped up but also be seen to be stepped up. Adjustments will be required to ensure touchless customer service including modified menus and payment systems. Greater supply chain transparency will be required. All of the above take time and money to implement.

There will be those who eat out as a show of support/ solidarity but, even with the aforementioned adjustments, significant numbers of past diners may not return to restaurants. Some will literally be dead and hence unavailable for dinner dates. Many more will be kept away by reduced disposable income. Of those with cash to spare some will adopt a short-term wait and see, eat at home approach while others may never return to pre-pandemic dining out routines.

Previous epidemics throughout history have pushed and/or sped up social change. As Andrea Burgener, chef-patron of Leopard at Rand Steam Shopping Centre Richmond. Johannesburg says; “Even before all this, dining out in a restaurant was much less popular as a form of entertainment than it was a decade ago. For the past few years people have increasingly wanted restaurant-quality food but haven’t necessarily wanted to be in a restaurant to eat it. What COVID-19 has done is turn what was probably a gradual trend being phased in into an overnight new way of living.”

If Burgener is correct what does this new way of engaging with commercial cooked food outlets tell us about social, economic and political processes in the wider world. Restaurants first emerged in mid-18th century Paris and became more firmly entrenched post revolution. They were a reflection of Enlightenment-era thinking which advanced ideals such as liberty, fraternity, equality, constitutional government and the sovereignty of researched reason. Restaurants (unlike house parties or private clubs) operate on the principle that the service is public and available to anyone able and willing to pay. Restaurant-going has historically been an experience through which people learned to coexist as strangers. It was not ever thus. In 1840, Miss Caroline Kirkland (quoted in Holidays Abroad: American Women Travelers 1650-1920) wrote to her mother that “It really requires some practice… but these [Paris] restaurant dinners are very pleasant things when you are once used to them.” Praising the cuisine and décor, she was struck most forcefully by “the simple, pleasurable act of eating dinner in a room where unknown others do the same”.

For almost 300 years to be one of the people in a restaurant space has been a way of making a claim about belonging in society. The self-styled ‘inventor’ of restaurants, Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, often signed himself, “The Friend of All the World.” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s tome Physiology of Taste describes sitting down to dine in a restaurant as “gradually spreading that spirit of fellowship which daily brings all sorts together.”

The Test Kitchen’s Luke Dale Roberts and guests.

The idea that ‘I eat in a restaurant therefore I am a member of this society’ has featured prominently in modern civil rights struggles all over the world. The 29 Alabama State University students who participated in a 1960 lunch counter sit-in where fighting for racial equality in the USA. More recently and closer to home, a homosexual couple took the Lake Restaurant in Brakpan to the Equality Court in 2017 for violating their rights by denying them entry to the eatery’s weekly candle-lit, date-night event.

If the pandemic leaves us with nothing but ghost kitchens and delivery services we will have abandoned the ideals of public spaces, shared civility and common humanity. While not everyone can afford to eat in restaurants or order from restaurants, everyone is impacted if those who can opt out of their broader social context choose to do so. It is much easier not to care about those you never see. The public health consequences of a failure to engage with others are potentially disastrous for both rich and poor.  If you don’t see them, they don’t see you. For the rich, public gaze creates public self-control. The foods that we order when no one is watching are different from those chosen in social situations. Most of us want our public choices to reflect the ‘best’ of who we are. Ordering without social context makes us much more likely to order chips not salad and two chocolate puddings.

Above and beyond health consequences, the death of restaurants as an on-premise service reflect a wider death of respect for an expert. The role of chef and restauranteur has historically been to curate a whole epicurean experience. Menus are planned and balanced. Experience, knowledge and skill goes into culinary technique, wine list compilation, music and decor. Hyper individuation of consumption disrupts and disrespects such skills. People ordering online tend to mix and match their meal components from various different eating establishments. Those who disrespect expert opinions about food do so in other areas of their life. That way lies the next pandemic…

  • Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.

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