Optimism was high going into 2020. Expo promised to bring untold millions of new customers into the region, Saudi Arabia was opening up to the world and bringing with it a burgeoning F&B scene, and Dubai’s growth continued unabated with new restaurants popping up on every corner.
But it couldn’t last. We didn’t know it then, but at the turn of the year an unseen virus was slowly spreading its way through Wuhan, China and by March it would be the most talked-about thing on the planet.
Covid-19, although more widely known by its generic name, coronavirus, has upended the F&B world in a way no one thought possible. The situation is changing daily, but as of the start of April, all restaurants in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Oman, and many, many other countries throughout the world are on complete lockdown.
It was a move that many in the industry had been crying out for. Data from food website Chef’s Pencil showed that searches for Chinese and Italian food (the countries most widely affected by the virus initially) plummeted as much as 96%.
Although not transmitted via food, Covid-19 is highly contagious between humans and public spaces where people were likely to congregate, such as restaurants, quickly became no-go zones.
Mingora and NPD’s sales track data which is used by QSRs and fast-casual brands to track their progress from week to week showed single-digit decline followed by double-digit decline week-on-week as customers stayed away from dining out in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak and chose to self-isolate to limit any potential exposure to the crisis.
Gates Hospitality CEO and founder Naim Maadad was the first to call on the government to step in and lockdown restaurants so they would have a chance to reduce their outgoings and get help with utilities, rent, rates, and other taxes.
Now that it’s happened, the F&B industry in the Middle East is waking up to a new normal, for the foreseeable future at least. While some of what has happened will have an indelible negative effect on the sector, with restaurants closing down and many staff losing their jobs already, an improvement in food safety and hygiene across the board could be a singular positive.
The change has been immediate says Alp Aksoy, vice president, hospitality, Africa, ME, and Turkey for cleaning solutions firm Diversey. “With Covid-19, I believe everybody has become more aware that basic hygienic practices, such as washing your hands or disinfecting spaces, are a part of preserving our way of life. While in the past working while sick was heroic in certain workspaces, now people realise such actions challenge the sustainability of a business and human health. Therefore; we could say that there has been some awareness, even though not necessarily towards food hygiene, but generic awareness of basic hygiene, which is also the fundamentals of food hygiene.”
Many restaurant operators have implemented heightened food hygiene regimes, including Krush Brands which owns Freedom Pizza, Wildflower Poke & More, and others. Founder and CEO Ian Ohan says that while its kitchens are already rigorously operated on strict HACCP standards, it has added in extra measures.
He says: “We have increased the frequency of two-staged hand sanitisation to a minimum of every 30 minutes and between every delivery for our drivers who, unlike third-party delivery companies, are actually our employees and can enter our stores to sanitise themselves properly and frequently. We also have asked our drivers to maintain a 1m to 1.5m minimum distance from customers and minimise closer contact to essential only.
“We have further implemented the use of antibacterial masks for all kitchen staff and drivers. This is an added precaution to help protect our customers and employees from potential Covid-19 transmission from airborne respiratory droplets transmission.”
But, while making strides to improve hygiene is an important step, Marc Hajjar, country manager of Boecker UAE tells us it’s important that restaurants do it correctly, otherwise, their attempts could be meaningless.
He says: “Our food safety experts have noticed different mistakes such as improper handwashing technique and wrong use of disinfectants while cleaning and sanitising food contact surfaces. There is also a tendency to not disinfect items such as menu cards, sauce bottles, tabletops, chair handles, cash counters and credit card machines. Other improper hygiene habits are the usage of cloth instead of disposable towels for cleaning surfaces and the usage of electric fly killers instead of glue board machines."
To ensure that these systems are implemented properly, Aksoy believes F&B operators need to invest in training for both the back of house and customer-facing teams. He says: “Restaurants should not treat hygiene merely is about products only, they should seek to have products with service and training, which will save them money in the midterm and let them keep a peace of mind.
“They should remember that short cuts with hygiene may have severe consequences on their investment and brand. They should seek to use dispensed, concentrated products to overcome human mistakes, as many operators may think the use of more products would deliver better cleaning. Such misconceptions may not cost us much at home, yet in professional environments, with the high volumes, the costs can be high, and frankly, unnecessary.”
Hajjar agrees that training is key, but keeping the vital information front and centre will keep it at the forefront of the staff’s mind. ”Post stickers and posters related to food safety all over the premises so the staff will have it in front of them as a reminder, and implement a reward system to encourage their teams to abide by the food and hygiene policies,” he says.
While the coronavirus outbreak has had a devastating impact on many in the F&B sector in the Middle East, some have been able to thrive during it. Abhijit Rajwade, founder and managing director of Let’s Cook, says: “It has given us an opportunity to cater to all the homebound people with their daily diet requirements. We are a home delivery service of fresh pre-portioned ingredients and recipes which encourage people to cook at home. This is a good time for the family to come together around the kitchen, exchange positive vibes and cook their own meals.
“We are doing our best to ensure that all our customers get regular supplies of fresh ingredient boxes without any interruptions."
But for F&B operators with standard brick-and-mortar operations, these are trying times. Chang Sup Shin, CEO of Korean outlet 1004 Gourmet, believes the challenges it poses shouldn’t be underestimated. He says: “I think this is, and should be considered, a very serious issue. It's not ‘just the flu!’ I'm hoping we will be able to contain it within six months but I would not be surprised if it lasts until next year.”
From a food safety point of view, Chang hopes the lessons learned from Covid-19 will become a standard part of our hygiene culture long term. He says: “I think it's important to control the number of people in a space so it's not too crowded and to educate the customers to wash their hands and sanitise regularly. Our cultures believe in the role that masks play to minimise contamination so we would like to see more people wearing it. It's become a taboo in Western countries that people who wear masks are sick or intimidating but it's a great way to not only spread any viruses but protect yourself from it.”
For Panchali Mahendra, managing director of Atelier House which operates Mohalla and Marea in Dubai, financial concerns are a big obstacle to returning to normal. She says: “This is the time for the landlords to be supportive and look at the market and give significant deductions. As a part of the industry, we can only hope to see the impact lessen and provide measures to make sure each environment is virus-free at the minimum. We need to keep working and moving forward and be calm, not create more panic within the clients.”
With locations around the globe, Trevor Mackenzie, managing partner of Mango Tree restaurants worldwide, is keenly affected. He hopes that “governments, no matter what country, are quicker to act and quickly start to offer businesses the help they need to get back to business as usual and keep the economies going. Otherwise it will have the opposite effect and we will have mass bankruptcies, mass unemployment, and mass overall recession which will burden the government even more and push all the work to them.”
But for Ohan, the immediate government response has been impressive and he believes that ultimately the industry will come out of this crisis stronger. He says: “I am very encouraged by the aggressive global response to the situation by the UAE government and many international governments. This is the kind of thing you want to be out in front of. I am inspired as I see the world coming together to figure this out. We are an innovative, resilient and powerful species. This too shall pass.”