T&T Restaurants grapple to stay afloat during COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a pandemic of seismic proportions that seems to have made its dreadful presence felt in every corner of the globe. According to official statistics to date, the numbers continue to climb with over 240,000 confirmed cases globally.

One sector particularly hit by COVID-19 has been the restaurant industry, which has seen a downturn in patronage as restrictions on group gatherings and social distancing becomes the new norm. Trinidad and Tobago, like many of our neighbouring islands, is coming to terms with the ripple effect of the Coronavirus.

BUZZ sat down with Executive Chef & Hospitality Professional Brigette Joseph from Trinidad & Tobago, who has seen first-hand the effects in this ever-evolving situation in an industry she has called home for almost 14 years.

Executive Chef and Hospitality Consultant, Brigette Joseph

What makes the COVID-19 situation so unique?

I’ve never seen the industry like this in the 14 years I’ve been in it, or my entire life really. The fact is that people cannot congregate and the whole point of restaurants is for people to socialize over food and beverages.

“Restaurant” comes from the Latin word “to renew”, and the first-ever restaurant’s motto was “Come to me all who suffer from pain of the stomach and I will restore you.” What we have going on right now is the total opposite of that, and it’s a devastating reality.

What is the general sentiment among your colleagues at this time?

I had an interaction with someone in Hong Kong, and they’ve been struggling in their business – between the ongoing US/China trade war, various protests on the mainland, the extradition situation and now Coronavirus, they’ve been having a hard time. However, they’re now seeing a light at the end of the tunnel now that the situation is improving.

In the Caribbean, there is a general sentiment among those I have spoken to in the restaurant community that the Government is forgetting our industry. Hospitality is a part of our tourism mainstay and eating is a big part of our lives. We see the bailout of businesses in the finance and airline industries happening globally, but we cannot allow them to forget the hospitality sector.

Since the pandemic hit this region, have you noticed any changes with businesses throughout the islands?

Business has slowed-down, workers are co-sharing their hours to help each other out and some operations have come to a complete stop. People are afraid to go out. They are going to the grocers and taking home as opposed to dining out.

Restaurants are practising social distancing, which reduces the number of reservations that they can take. Some restaurants that are heavily dependent on dining have closed for the time being; not sure of next steps.

One restaurateur locally has opted to close business and employees have been left with little choice but to take an early-induced vacation.

What is the biggest impact of Coronavirus on restaurant owners?

The reality is that some restaurants will close their doors and will not reopen – we are already seeing that trend in New York, Chicago, LA, even London. Every hospitality space is trying to reach out for public office assistance.

Restaurateurs have to pay rent and our labour force is huge – people will soon be unemployed. Also, we don’t assess someone’s skill set based on academic qualifications; no formal schooling is required, for example, dishwashers. Those skills are non-transferrable to other industries.

How important is it for business owners to innovate during this difficult period?

During a time of uncertainty, Chef Joseph reminds that innovation is key. Virtual Events TT will host its first-ever Virtual Brunch, where Chef Joseph will host a “how to prepare” feature live online.

It’s of the highest importance right now. Free virtual seminars are being hosted by different global chef organizations to explore new ways to do things and share ideas to help businesses through this time. Some of the things that have been discussed are:

  • Keeping the ordering of goods very tight is key.
  • Create special deals for customers, create smaller menus and understand that raw material is capital.
  • Ask for an extension on payment periods from suppliers and keep the money for smaller suppliers and people who provide your produce.
  • Consider changing to family-style menus – look at introducing homey, comfort food that can freeze and reheat.
  • Food delivery is also a great consideration.

Do you think that this pandemic will have a lasting or long-term effect on the restaurant industry in the Caribbean?

Absolutely. We will need to change business models. We will need to be more flexible and these unprecedented circumstances might help with changing the guard.

How do restaurant owners encourage their patrons to continue supporting their business?

Extend your reach with social media, including sponsored posts. Join home delivery applications.

What is the reality that no-one wants to speak about in the restaurant industry right now? What is the biggest fear?

We are facing the permanent closure of some businesses. There is no insurance that covers pandemic-related activities, so it almost feels like the odds are stacked against the hospitality industry.

It’s why the hashtag #savehospo was created – it is meant to generate awareness about the current plight. We will need to rescue and revive the industry once the coronavirus pandemic has subsided.

What’s your hopeful outlook a year from now for the restaurant industry?

I hope that we can have a stronger regional association and support system because we need a singular voice that government agencies can liaise with. Currently, there is no chef association that is actually advocating or giving advice. Closing down a business is as hard as keeping it open.

Some T&T restaurants have opted for curbside & delivery services, including popular eatery Chaud Café.

We need more solidarity, a more united front. This will affect labour laws in hospitality – other islands who are more tourism-oriented have labour laws to protect their labour forces, such as Barbados and Jamaica. Other islands need that consistency and stability.

Do you have any advice for restaurant owners given the current circumstances?

Hold strong and be flexible. Make sensible decisions but sensitive ones.

I know most are doing their best to be resilient and to take care of their staff since employees are a part of their investment into their business and are a part of the family environment in the kitchen that really makes the restaurant who they are.