In January 2020, Yanano Mundawarara’s fledgling restaurant in Harare was buzzing. Listening to the loud Friday night laughter from her packed small restaurant near Chisipite, she was convinced that her daring idea to open an eatery was paying off.
Then COVID-19 happened and the lockdowns came, and the laughter has never returned. Her business, too, looks like it may never be back.
“It took a lot of guts to open the business. Now it looks like it was all in vain,” Mundawarara tells newZWire.
Despite the economic crisis, many restaurateurs have set up thriving spots that have carved up niches in upmarket locations. But COVID-19 has upended many.
Zimbabwe began lockdowns in March last year, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mid-year, government eased restrictions and allowed restaurants to serve limited numbers of sit-in customers.
But a surge in new COVID-19 cases that began in late December pushed government into a tougher lockdown that kept restaurants shut down totally, save for takeaways and deliveries.
“Even if we could do takeaways or deliveries, it would be very small volumes, nowhere near enough to keep us running,” Mundawarara says. “I hope we return to normal soon, or it’s lights out for us.”
She is not alone. Up to half of the country’s restaurants face closure, according to Bongai Zamchiya, who runs the Pariah State restaurants and is president of the Restaurant Operators’ Association of Zimbabwe.
On Monday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa relaxed lockdown measures, allowing much of the industry to reopen fully. But there was no relief for restaurants. They can only open for takeaways and deliveries, Mnangagwa said.
Restaurants: Feeling the heat
Around the world, governments have restricted restaurant operations. In November last year, research in the US found that the reopening of restaurants, gyms and hotels carried the highest danger of spreading COVID-19.
But restaurant operators were hoping for a compromise.
“We had hoped for re-opening of restaurants in the March 1 update announcement, with permission for half-capacity service for sit-down diners, but this has not happened,” Zamchiya says.
“When we were partially operational in the second half of 2020 we showed that safe and secure dining is possible and easy to achieve, and we are requesting urgent attention to our crisis, and that of our suppliers, from farming through to manufacturing.”
For every restaurant that goes out of business, Zamchiya says, there will be job losses for support services, from suppliers to delivery workers.
“We are fully supportive of the national effort to contain and eliminate Covid-19, but the current dispensation for the restaurant trade is no longer tenable and we face a huge level of business closures and job losses, not only in the restaurant trade but among the many suppliers to the trade,” said Zamchiya.
Bills to pay
While unable to operate fully, restaurant operators still have to pay licence fees and other costs in full.
“In fact, most restaurants are faced with full costs related to rentals, wages and other inputs, but we have no income, while those that are able to do takeaways report income of between eight and 20% of pre-lockdown levels,” he said. “We are, quite literally, at a crossroads and we appeal for urgent attention to avert a disaster for the trade and many of its suppliers.”
The closures have hit both small restaurants like Mundawarara’s, and larger operators.
At Simbisa Brands, the country’s largest fast-food company, customer counts dropped 33.7% in the year to June last year, a combination of the lockdown and the collapse of disposable incomes. In the three months to September, even after the easing of restrictions and Simbisa’s strong deliveries capacity, customer numbers fell 18%.
“There’s no worse feeling than sending people home,” Mundawarara says.