These few months before summer are the restaurant industry’s magic months. It’s when they are at their best as an industry, making as much revenue as they can to see them through till September and the new “season.”
It’s tourist season and “Dubai Inc” is at its most glorious with desert safaris and dancing fountains and quaint Abra trips. It’s the season of events and festivals and concerts and we are reminded briefly why Dubai needs both an opera house and a Coke A Cola Arena.
It’s when St Patrick’s day weekend gives a green jolt of commerce to many bars and clubs across the city and everyone suddenly discovers their long-lost Irish heritage for 48 hours and forgets everything else after that
It’s when every restaurant offers a generous Ramadan Iftar spread and stay open into the early hours as modern-day majlises for all nationalities.
Alfresco dining is king, beach clubs are for the princes and queens and Friday brunches are full to kingdom come.
However, none of that is going to happen this year. An already fragile industry has been rocked by the necessary but devastating measures that are being taken to reduce the spread of the Corona Virus.
Make no mistake, this is a once in a generation event that our kids and grandkids will speak about in the same way we speak about the Great Depression, Spanish Flu.
As I type this, bars and clubs have been shut in the capital, and I presume soon in Dubai too. Gyms and cinemas have just been ordered shut, as social distancing measures kick in.
There is no global appetite to be a tourist at the moment, but even if there was, you couldn’t get into Dubai, as visas are no longer being issued.
Hotels have already announced strategic closures of some properties and major events have been postponed until further notice. Schools and universities are closed, and it appears we now need to take this “social distancing” very seriously.
I’ll admit having championed going out and supporting local restaurants, as recently as last week but a lot of changes can happen in a pandemic week. Defiance is not the answer here. We are not fighting something that responds to defiance and boldness of character. A virus doesn’t care. Especially this one.
Enforced restaurant closure is a very real scenario and I fear it is not a matter of if, but when restaurants will be asked to close. Many business owners are torn between voluntarily closing and holding on until authorities make the call for them.
However, a few restaurants have already started to close their dine-in, subscribing to the philosophy of doing too much is far less risky than doing too little.
Others need to remain open for a chance to survive. There are nine thousand restaurants in this city and the majority of them operate financially on a week to week basis. Closing for an undefined period is a nightmare scenario.
My fear is this – if restaurants do have to close, many will not open their doors again.
Restaurants are a cash business, and without people coming through the door, the cash will run out fast. The fall out will be immediate and immense. Families will suffer, both here and abroad where relatives wait for monthly money transfers to survive.
So, I reached out and asked the restaurant community how they were feeling and what they were getting ready for.
Some had a better grasp of the situation than others, but overwhelmingly the answer was “We don’t really know.”
The first thing that struck me about the conversations I was having with operators and owners were their priorities. Faced with an uncertain future, they still put hygiene and guest and staff safety and reassurance as their number one priority. Extra training on hygiene habits. More contactless moments. Elbow bumps and training on symptoms.
Some businesses are talking to their banks and landlords – asking to benefit from the hundred billion (with a b) dirham Central Bank stimulus package by deferring payments and cheques.
Everyone is looking to increase their delivery business. If people are self-isolating, then let’s take the food to them, seems to be a clear strategy for many. Some restaurants are upping their delivery capabilities with the hiring of extra drivers. Those that don’t deliver themselves rely on the third-party delivery apps and face a battle with the commission rates and low margins that come with those partnerships.
Despite the USDA announcing, “we are not aware of any reports at this time of human illness that suggest covid-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” drivers are being instructed to not touch the food bag, asking customers to remove it themselves. Who’s laughing at that drone delivery idea now, huh?
The delivery platforms really need to engage in dialogue with their restaurant partners and offer real, tangible financial support during this time. They need to understand the situation and reach out to their partners with workable solutions.
The landlords need to show compassion and play the long game. Suppliers, banks and the entire eco-system need to come together and try to minimise the damage these coming weeks and months are going to bring.
Restaurants, I urge you to maintain your standards, treat your staff fairly and show good business ethics as well. Reach out to your communities and competitors. Show kindness and support.
Stormy waters make for excellent sailors and as a good friend of mine said of his restaurants in London – “It’s not business as usual, but at least it’s business.”
Let’s all stay in business.