Marisa Bidois, Chief Executive Officer of the Restaurant Association, has been in and around the hospitality business for two decades but has never seen anything like the impact of Covid-19. She tells us what life has been like for the last two months, and how blown-away she is by the resilience of her industry.
“All restaurants will close for a period of a minimum of four weeks. No takeaway will be allowed. You are to close your doors, immediately and only reopen when we are satisfied that we have this virus under control.”
This was the instruction given by our Prime Minister when she announced that we would move to Alert Level 4.
I’ve been with the Association for nine years and in the industry for 20 and I’ve seen us face some challenges, but never did I imagine that we would find ourselves in this position. In short, the news was a devastating blow to an industry that was already in crisis.
Hospitality was one of the first industries to be affected by Covid-19 when our borders closed to China. Along with the tourism sector, we have been dealing with the ramifications of this for way longer than any other industry. As an organisation that represents an industry of 133,000, we knew immediately that it was our job to lobby, advocate and defend the hard working people whose livelihoods depended on the daily flat whites, Sunday brunches and special occasion dinners that play such a pivotal role in the lives of Kiwis.
We worked hard to get our voice heard, campaigning initially for the wage subsidy and clarity around rules, and latterly for additional relief as well as legislation around a mandatory cap on delivery app commissions. We have developed strong relationships with the government assisting them to put together frameworks for the reopening of the industry at the various Alert Levels. During this time our phone lines and inboxes continued to be overwhelmed with the anxious and desperate calls of those we represent.
But as the reality set in, we saw a change in our people that I can only describe as characteristic of their resilience and creativity. They started to pivot.
They understood what was required of them and whilst as an association we continued to demand assistance, we also worked together with our members on scenario planning. Restructuring businesses, thinking about what we would do next and entering survival mode. I have always been inspired by my colleagues in the industry. But I could never have imagined just how inspired. I watched this community of business owners and their teams do everything they could to keep their businesses afloat and then pivot to reopen as a takeaway under these stringent new rules. The sheer resilience, creativity and perseverance that our industry has shown is both mind-blowing and humbling. They will always keep finding ways to keep trucking on.
And how we’ve missed them.
The queues of people waiting for coffees, the pre-orders for special menus from our fine dining establishments and the huge swathes of support that we’ve seen from the Kiwi public wanting to know what they can do to help. But it’s not necessarily coffee, or brunch that we’ve missed. If we are honest, it’s the people we’ve missed more than anything. Social interaction is the very essence of our industry. Yes we’re all looking forward to a meal that we didn’t cook ourselves, but more than that, we’re looking forward to dining out again. To feel the buzz of a dining room.
This is the reason our people get out of bed every morning. We are an industry based on relationships. Between growers and chefs, front-of-house people and customers, business owners and their teams. There is a human interaction that happens throughout all parts of a hospitality business that cannot be replicated. We play such a vital role in the lives of so many, and having it completely removed from our lives for four weeks has given us a unique opportunity to witness that. Our establishments are a place to find the joy in human interaction and experience. In an increasingly remote world, we must protect it.
Whilst we are overwhelmed at the huge numbers of people who have headed out to support our businesses this week, we know that a big week of takeaway orders is not going to be enough. We know that we are heading into more difficult times, without the best possible support from the government for small business. There will be many businesses that will not survive this crisis unfortunately. We will need to pivot many more times before we are out of the other side of this.
The outbreak has, of course, given us opportunity to reflect. On how we need to do things differently in order to ensure our businesses are sustainable. And these are conversations we are prepared to have and to lead. For now what we need is support and care and appreciation. We need to value how hard these businesses work to bring us the experiences we have so missed. We need to treat them with the respect and kindness they deserve.
As food writers we need you to tell their stories, so that the public understand the care and cost of what they do. We need you to inform, so that diners place real value on the role that these dedicated and creative people play in our lives so that we can continue to enjoy this vibrant dining scene that we’ve missed so much.
Images: RANZ, iStock and unsplash (Nick Karvounis)