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WHAT DOES THE FUTURE TASTE LIKE?

By Siobhan Redford, Macro Economist at Rand Merchant Bank

 

From early 2020, we retreated indoors and far away from all our favourite gathering spots. What seems like a one-in-a-hundred-year event had begun: the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments far and wide restricted movement and enforced the closure of restaurants, pubs and theatres, among others. With extra time on our hands and being restricted to our homes, we saw a good portion of the population sharing recipes on social media for banana bread, pineapple beer (causing a pineapple and yeast shortage at one point!) and many other kinds of starchy delightsI have often found solace in the kitchen. It is my creative space – a place to think, to change focus, to try something new and play around with my favourite flavours – and even try out a few new ones from time to time. Let’s be honest, there are times that even a simple homemade meal is the best thing since sliced bread!

That said, does it mean that once the pandemic is over that we will stay away from restaurants? I think not. Eating out is not just about the food, it is a social event – a chance to sit in a different space, to try food you normally wouldn’t make at home. It is the experience that counts: all the pleasure of eating yummy food, but none of the mess (my dishwasher is a critical appliance in my life); the joy of being served, of meeting new people, the setting, the vibe and as someone who loves an interesting wine list, the opportunity to try new and interesting varietals.

The Restaurant Association of South Africa estimated that around 800 000 people are employed in the restaurant and hospitality industry, and that nearly a third of restaurants had shut down since the onset of pandemic. What does this mean for the future of the industry?
 
The industry is likely to become smaller than it was before the pandemic, but as international tourism ramps up and hopefully exceeds pre-Covid levels, the demand will increase and thus the opportunities will increase too. Tourism is an area of growth and employment identified by the government, as it is a services sector which can hire relatively unskilled people. A more casual restaurant can get inexperienced people and train them in taking orders and using systems and delivering food, but waitstaff at a fine dining institution would be expected to have more training. More upmarket restaurants will also look for sommeliers who will have some qualifications and staff with formal training in kitchens, however, there are also kitchen jobs which can take on people which are relatively unskilled and upskill them. The opportunities in the industry are good but are heavily tied to the state of the economy (and the number of people willing to undertake the daunting and risky task of setting up a restaurant).
 
 
How is South Africa’s food security looking – before and after – the initial lockdown, and what does this mean for the future?

South Africa has been fairly food secure until now and actually with the closing of restaurants, hotels and tourism during Covid, there was an excess of meat and other foodstuffs available which pushed prices lower. We are able to produce quite a bit, although do import cheaper frozen meats which some local producers struggle to compete against, and that is where the demand is the greatest. We are also a net importer of wheat. We can definitely expect periods of plenty and periods of drought driven by El Nino, but in the long term, the bigger concern will be the desertification of South Africa as climate change has a greater and more permanent impact. Prices have risen, but that is partly because prices were low last year and also because of higher international maize prices (international wheat prices have been stable relative to last year).

 

How should restaurateurs future-proof their business during this time?

This one is tricky… My suggestion would be to increase domestic patronage, but that in turn means lower margins or fewer fine dining restaurants. Rands unfortunately don’t go as far as hard currency. I’d also encourage restaurateurs to focus on seasonality, as the use of seasonal produce should keep some food costs down.

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