This is an intervention: restaurants have an alcohol problem

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This is an intervention: restaurants have an alcohol problem

How come is it that booze accounts for more than two thirds of their profit margins?

Executive editor: opinions and analysis
Wendy Alberts, CEO of the Restaurant Association of SA.
THE VOICE OF FINE DINING Wendy Alberts, CEO of the Restaurant Association of SA.
Image: Supplied

Fine dining is one of life’s little pleasures. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about enjoying the good things in life, such as a night out at a decent restaurant. I take great joy in pairing an aged, medium-rare fillet with a full-bodied bottle of merlot or a tender kingklip with a fruity chardonnay.

We can’t do that now because the anti-good life ideologues in the national coronavirus command council are hellbent on making the lockdown as miserable as possible. But we gave them the ammunition with our reckless behaviour over the festive season. We went partying, disregarded masks and social distancing, broke the curfew and misbehaved on the road while drunk. We contributed to the spike in infections that brought us the second wave.

The Restaurant Association of SA organised a sit-in at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, but Cyril Ramaphosa wasn’t there ... They should have gone to Luthuli House, where the man spends his Mondays trying to convince the ANC he’s still their leader.

Restaurants that offer a dinner service are naturally aggrieved at the expanded 9am to 5am curfew and prohibition of the sale of alcohol, especially for on-site consumption. Wendy Alberts, CEO of the Restaurant Association of SA (Rasa), is an extremely energetic and competent campaigner in their corner. A lot of communicators have a lot to learn from Alberts on the basics of effective communication and message delivery. She is everywhere, a vocal voice of those she represents.

On Monday, Rasa organised a sit-in at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, hoping to have an audience with President Cyril Ramaphosa to air their grievances over the curfew and booze ban. He wasn’t there, of course. They should have gone to Luthuli House, where the man spends his Mondays trying to convince the ANC he’s still their leader.

However, there’s a stat Alberts keeps repeating in numerous interviews that I’m failing to comprehend. She insists alcohol accounts for 70% of the profit margins of restaurants and that the continued prohibition of its sale spells doom, especially for fine-dining establishments. Hundreds of them have closed their doors because the prohibition of on-site consumption liquor hampers their ability to pay staff, landlords and suppliers.

Let’s examine this closely. So restaurants – whose primary product/service should be food – have based their business model on an ancillary product that is paired with food?

If alcohol accounts for more than two thirds of the profit margin, then what percentage of restaurant patrons actually consume alcohol? I find it hard to believe every patron insists on pairing their cuisine with wine, beer or spirits.

Also, what is the percentage of restaurants whose profit margins is so heavily reliant on alcohol sales? Alberts cannot apply a blanket approach to all her members.

The hospitality industry, of which restaurants are a key component, is an important sector of the economy. Restaurants and hotels employ about 330,000 people, according to Stats SA. But these establishments must ask themselves hard questions. How many of their employees are South African (and this is by no means xenophobic)? Waiting tables is not a scarce skill. Young South Africans, the bulk of our unemployed, should ideally be considered ahead of migrants.

Do they engage in ethical employment practices? I have frequented a number of restaurants where the waiter has asked if I can’t tip them in cash because the owners/managers take a chunk off the tips that are made via card payments. In some joints, waiters do not receive basic salaries and are solely reliant on tips. Is this even legal? Are restaurants allowed to outsource their wage bill for waiting staff to customers who already pay exorbitant prices for meals and drinks?

Even if it’s not illegal, these practices are immoral. Does Rasa monitor such behaviour? Does it hold its members to account for these shameful practices? Even if it does not have enforcement powers, does it at least encourage ethical behaviour?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually on the side of restaurateurs. Most are entrepreneurs who have invested heavily and toiled hard to build their brands. What would Cape Town, Durban and Joburg be without some of their finest restaurants adding colour and culture to the skyline?

But Rasa’s demand for on-site consumption sales is tricky. Does government allow on-site consumption liquor sales only at high-end restaurants? What about eateries in townships, shebeens and even bars? What about restaurants that convert into clubs after hours?

I cannot wait for the day I’ll be able to pair a matured steak with a bottle of rich grapes at my favourite joint. Until then, restaurants have a lot to fix about their business model and employment practices.​

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