Feisty restauranteurs let rip on their ‘gatvol’ factor with landlords, bureaucracy, Eskom, government

Ocean Basket CEO Grace Harding and award-winning independent restauranteur Forti Mazzone share the frustrations that bedevil SA’s hospitality sector. Harding, a pistol of note, bemoans the poor response from the targets of her well read Open Letter to Landlords, while Mazzone tempers the cussing which marks his regular social media outbursts. Bottom line: SA’s bureaucracy went AWOL during the Covid crisis – and is still missing in action. Workers unable to draw unemployment benefits, forced instead to rely on the generosity of already hard-pressed employers.

Forti Mazzone on running a restaurant in South Africa

I think it’s just becoming increasingly difficult to run not only a restaurant but basically any SME in this country. Every time we turn, we seem to be slapped in the face by something else. It’s literally become almost impossible to run a business in this country. 

Grace Harding on whether she received any responses to her open letter to landlords

I’ve had one landlord, the CEO of Redefine, who has reached out, and I’m meeting with him, I think, in two weeks. But no, I was basically ignored and when I was interviewed by Bruce Whitfield, he invited some guys on the show and everyone declined. 

Mazzone on how he protected himself against landlords during Covid.

I must be honest with you that I’ve always made sure that when I negotiated my leases, I always had a very specific clause relating to a Covid-type incident written in. So in all my restaurants, I didn’t pay rent during Covid specifically because I protected myself in my lease. But let’s be honest, the average person doesn’t have the kind of legal background, especially not restauranteurs, that would enable them to put that to their landlord. And let me tell you, I’ve seen some landlords act like absolute Satan to some of their tenants. It’s been absolutely appalling. The thing is if restaurants had to suffer and in fact, our staff and all of us had to suffer, why shouldn’t landlords suffer too? It was something that was completely out of the hands of the restauranteurs. This was not something that we had control over. We don’t deliberately go out and close our restaurants. I mean, that stands to reason. I’m just very fortunate in that I was protected by these clauses inserted into all my leases. I don’t know why. I just foresaw this type of thing happening possibly one day, and I’m very glad I did.

Mazzone on why he keeps going despite all the difficulties in the restaurant business

Because I’ve got 144 staff and many of them have been with me for, you know, more than 30 years. 144 families eat from my businesses. I can’t just up and leave this country. I have an elderly mom who cannot move from this country. I have children, one of whom is at varsity, the other one who works, but they both stay at home with me. I have a wonderful ex-wife who I support. I have my current wife and I have 144 staff who depend on me. It’s not meant to sound patronising, but if I leave, who’s going to look after all these people? 

Harding on whether people are going to start going bankrupt now

It’s so hard to tell, but certainly, during Covid we were just waiting for Covid to be over. No one foresaw a war. And obviously, we all know what the additional challenges are in South Africa. But at the moment, I’m in London and here I mean, they’re dealing with inflation for I think the first time in I don’t know how long. And I do have a little giggle because they think that their lives are falling apart, but the world is in trauma and we will get through it. The thing is, we’ve got to do things differently. So we’ve got to have conversations with landlords. We have to find a way to work through these price increases. We’ve got to engage with our guests, with our customers in a very different way. She hasn’t got the money she used to have. She really doesn’t. It’s going to get worse and worse because look at the petrol price increase. Fewer people will go on holiday – it costs over R2,000 to go to Nelspruit and come back, with toll fees. So the impact is so huge. And I think the thing is we have to stop asking, “When will it be okay?” because it is not going to be okay. It is going to be new. That’s what it’s going to be. But I think we are in for at least two years of a very, very, very rough ride.

Harding on how Covid changed the business model

Covid has opened up our minds. There’s nothing like a good crisis to get you to think differently. I think our marketing strategies have to change. We have to shift to engaging with people and not just saying, well, today you can come and get to set this at this price, and our relationships with suppliers, business models. The opportunity is to truly focus on the gift and everything that contributes to it. But what has Covid done for us? It’s opened up our minds and suddenly, under immense pressure, you come up with the most innovative solutions and now with the extra stress that’s come on, it’s just continuing. So it’s during these times that we innovate. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it a struggle? Yes. Do I up my medication? Yes. But as Forti said, with thousands and thousands of people who you’re responsible for… I mean, we raised our own money from our pockets, not even from the company, to give just a R150 Checkers voucher to our restaurant staff during Covid because they weren’t getting their TERS money. It’s different in South Africa. We’ve got to look after so much more than just the business. It’s not like Europe where everyone got their TERS and the government stopped the landlords from charging and they weren’t allowed to claim the money back and all of that stuff. Yeah. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

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