Many restaurateurs are contemplating closings, despite having curbside pickup, delivery and drive-through services reopened.
That's because most of their income came from in-house dining, and the government’s move to partial reopening was just not working. One restaurateur reports losing millions of dollars.
On July 10, the Prime Minister announced the reopening of the sector for drive-through, curbside pickup and takeaway services, while prohibiting in-house dining. It has been more than three months since the food and beverage sector closed before the partial reopening.
Some food outlets such as Mario’s Pizzeria in Chaguanas, Chaud restaurant in St Ann’s, and Hakka restaurant in Woodbrook have closed down. Others, like Passage to Asia on Ariapita Avenue and Dim Sum in Southland Plaza, hope they will not reach this point.
It has been a dire situation for the owner of Seahorse Inn in Black Rock, Tobago, and former president of the Breakfast, Restaurant and Tourism Association, Nicholas Hardwicke, who revealed on Tuesday that he has lost almost $2 million owing to the closure and would not reopen at present because a partial service was not feasible.
In a TV6 News interview on Tuesday, Hardwicke said, “There seemed to be a feeling that restaurants were allowed to reopen, and everything was going to be good and back to normal, and we are no way near that.
“There have been considerable price increases in some of the consumables which are necessary for the sector.”
Hardwicke suggested the government broaden economic factors such as generating foreign exchange and creating sustainable employment to allow the sector to survive and flourish.
In a previous Tobago Newsday interview, Hardwicke said the circumstances for Tobago restaurateurs, which are not conventional fast food restaurants, had to do with the island's tourism economy.
“With the beaches closed, with limited air- and seabridge access to Tobago, with the state of emergency still in place and the curfew, it really doesn’t make any sense for us to open at this time.”
The size of Tobago's population, at about 55,000, also meant there wasn't enough of a customer base even for limited services.
“We’re talking about an island of 55,000 people spread out all over the place. There isn’t enough population concentrated in any one area to make it viable to open under such restrictive circumstances," he said.
There was also the use of staff, with only a third being available for an express-style operation. The front-of-house staff would not benefit from such an arrangement. This approach would increase overhead expenditure without any meaningful revenue to cover such costs.
Hakka turns to new dining experience
It seemed to be under such circumstances that Hakka closed its branch on Taylor Street on Monday, announcing more meals-on-the go type services. In a Facebook post titled The Evolution Continues, it said, "Today we close the chapter on HAKKA Restaurant & Bar and we begin the journey to expand our menu across T&T. Commencing this month, we will start rolling out a new à la carte menu in all express locations.
"In the upcoming months, we will open new doors to a modern restaurant concept, which will be conveniently located at Brentwood Mall in Chaguanas Brentwood Mall. This amazing indoor and outdoor dining experience will, of course, be made available when covid19 restrictions have been lifted. Today, we say goodbye to our beloved "mother ship" and we wish to thank all of our dear guests who have supported us through the years. This is not the end but, rather, a new beginning for us all to share."
Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants & Tourism Association president Hassel Thom told Business Day he was aware of only two restaurants publicly announcing their closure, but suspected there were more in the smaller categories.
“The closure that were made public was Chaud, and more recently Hakka. I am sure that there are others who may not be as recognised who may have closed their doors, as it has been a very trying time for the industry,” Thom said.
He explained that the association has been working closely with the Ministry of Health to roll out the 20,000 vaccines allocated for the industry.
Vaccinations, Thom said, were critical not only for the full reopening of the sector but for other sectors.
Many restaurateurs said they were hoping in-house dining would be considered by the government soon, as the survival of their businesses depended on it.
Thom said, however, that this was not the best time for in-house dining.
“The group that we have been working with understand that this is not the best option, However, it is a step in the right direction, and we also understand that the more we keep the numbers down and the more people become vaccinated, then those actions can influence further roll-backs to the protocol.”
With the borders now reopened, Thom said an uptick in the industry was expected when other major airlines are allowed to operate as usual.
“Hotels were never officially closed and what affected their operations were the lockdown and no in-house dining. I see more patronage by the local market because they (government) have reopened other sectors of the economy.”
Not all restaurants are equal
Darryl Sumir, who owns Dim Sum restaurant at Southland Plaza in San Fernando, said he was disappointed by government’s handling of the sector, which forced some owners to close their businesses.
He explained that while some provisions have been made to allow food outlets to work, it did not cater for the fine=dining business model.
“While there are the smaller Chinese restaurants, people do like a fine-dining experience, and while we have our takeout customers, the income generated was not enough to operate.
“I foresee more restaurants like this closing, because the money that we make presently with takeout was not sufficient to pay staff. Then there is rent, goods and other overheads to take care of.”
Sumir said it going into two years that the world has been faced with the covid19 pandemic, yet government has not applied any critical thinking or solutions to help its population with their livelihoods.
Sumir, along with the owner of Pub House restaurant John Quan, and Passage to Asia owner Dipchand Persad, said they were faced with new challenges as food costs increased.
“Everything has been raised — from oil to produce to imports and the government, particularly the Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat, seemed to not be bothered.
“It is affecting us and the and the entire population, but they don’t seem to care,” Sumir said.
As part of its recovery package in the 2020/2021 budget, Government, allocated $500 million for the agriculture sector.
Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis said in June said $50 million has been allocated for agriculture in Tobago, which included incentives of up to $100,000 for farmers, other food producers, forestry and service sectors working in support of food production, and sums of $1,500,000, $2,000,000 and $1,800,000 have been allocated for repai s to landslips and farm access roads. There were plans to also expand the national seed bank in Chaguaramas.
But the Ministry of Trade and Industry's recent data reflected incremental increases in food prices, noting chicken, a staple in the restaurant business, had risen by an average of 19 cents per pound.
The varying cost factors have Persad thinking about closing his restaurant on Ariapita Avenue, but he will hold on until month-end.
Quan added, “A lot more businesses are offering the same thing now compared to before. The industry is saturated with the same structure and there is limited room for diversification because of the restrictions.
“My business would not be able to survive with the curbside pickup, takeout and delivery system. I don’t think any business would. People just don’t have the money.”
The businessmen agreed there were things that can be done to maintain the health protocols with in-house dining, such as reduced seating capacity, reservation only, and spaced0out seating arrangements.
They also encouraged people to get vaccinated, but did not support mandatory vaccinations for employees, citing health complications and breach of workers' and human rights.