‘We will come out of this stronger’ – A restaurateur’s experience of COVID-19

By: Larry Hodes, owner of Calexico

On Monday 16 March; when the rumours of COVID-19 began getting more serious; there was an immediate drop off in customers in my three restaurants. In the next 10 days my turnover would decrease by between 80 to 100% in my restaurants. When the new liquor laws were announced on 19 March, it made no sense to continue on with Calexico at 44 Stanley in Milpark; considering it was a bar and live music venue.

Closing permanently

Calexico had been struggling for a while for various reasons. Taking everything into account, we made the hard decision of closing Calexico permanently as there was no way it was going to be able to sustain itself; once the lockdown had ended. 

From Monday 16 March we had to kick into gear very quickly, like decreasing labour hours, cutting back on our ordering and reducing our operating times. We had only just launched The Dark Kitchen (delivery only model) and were hoping that restaurants could still continue doing deliveries. However, this was not to be.

Fear of the unknown

These last few weeks have been very tough. Amongst the many things of having to deal with was explaining to staff about the reduction of hours, that I would not be able to pay their full salaries, having to write letters to their landlords requesting that they consider the situation before serving them notices of eviction.

I also had to contact certain suppliers and my landlords about not been able to pay the outstanding invoices and rentals. I had to dig into all my cash-reserves to pay whatever salaries and debit orders I could. I still had some debit orders bounce. It has been hard not knowing if my other two restaurants will survive post the lockdown as I am still in the process of applying for various loans/financial assistance etc.

Calexico restaurant
Calexico restaurant at 44 Stanley in Johannesburg has been forced to close its doors during lockdown

Going for growth

As much as it has been a very tough period, it has been a huge growth phase. What has made it easier for me is knowing that there are many other restaurants facing the same challenges as me. While I knew the harsh challenges that I would face if there was a lockdown; I was also very proud of the government and all the political parties working together and taking bold decisive action. It has also been very encouraging seeing the government, many private individuals and banks step up and make sizable charitable donations and financial assistance to businesses like my own and for my staff.

It has also been very powerful knowing that I can choose how I respond to this crisis and also that we have never been gifted with so much time to work on our restaurants and ourselves. Too often we are so busy working in our restaurants that we do not work on our business and we miss out on many opportunities to become better, improve the guest experience, grow our sales etc.

I do believe that either way we are all going to come out of this a lot stronger.


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