Restaurants in ‘survival mode’ amid COVID downturn

Businesses innovate to stay alive

Nino Hafner, sommelier at Grand Old House, presides over the restaurant's new wine shop. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Survival is the main goal for Cayman’s restaurants as they seek to stay in business in the absence of tourists and with the local population declining each week.

The reopening of venues across the island since lockdown measures began to be eased in early June provided a lifeline for many businesses.

But the going has been tough, with more than 200 restaurants now competing for customers from a diminished population.

With the coronavirus still rampant in the US and the ‘soft opening’ of Cayman’s borders in September unlikely to bring an influx of tourists, restaurant owners are doing what they can to stay alive.

“Nobody gets rich right now, that’s not the point,” said Markus Mueri of NM Ventures restaurant group, which includes Karoo and Abacus in Camana Bay and Deckers on West Bay Road. “The goal is to break even and try to get through the next few months.”

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Businesses seek new revenue streams

At Grand Old House and the Wharf, operations manager Luciano De Riso said it had been a rollercoaster since the virus hit.

The Wharf kitchen remained open throughout the crisis, providing free meals to people without work in partnership with local charities.

De Riso said the venues had not gone into the delivery market because they are more focussed on “dining experience”.

But they are diversifying to attract new business.

The Wharf now offers breakfasts on the waterfront and a wine bar and shop has opened at Grand Old House.

“We have the largest wine list on the island so we have set up a shop within our restaurant,” said De Riso.

The venue offers tasting evenings and a variety of fine wines for sale.
Without tourists, De Riso says it is impossible for large upscale restaurants to manage on dining alone.

His staff has reduced by more than half since March but it still takes a workforce of around 50 people just to open the doors.

“We offer a dining experience and we don’t want to compromise on that,” he said.

But with a diminished local population and many people on lower salaries or without work, business is not as brisk as he would like.

“We had to decide if it was even worth it to be open,” De Riso said. “It would have been easier to shut but we are part of the community and if we are open we keep people employed, we pay the farmers and the fishermen, we pay Progressive Distributors, we play our part.”

He said making a profit was not an option right now.

“We have to try to lose as little as possible,” he said.

De Riso is not worried for the future of the restaurants he manages, but he said it was concerning to see some venues struggling to survive.

“We won’t be the culinary capital of the Caribbean if there are only 50 restaurants. “We need the Czech Inn, we need all these places to complement what we offer as a destination.”

Issues in the East

In East End, chef Ron Hargrave has reopened Tukka and Eagle Rays restaurants but his Mexican eatery Taco Cantina remains closed for now.

Hargrave, who also provided meals to those without food in the district throughout the crisis, said it was harder to make a living in the eastern districts, where more people had been impacted by the economic consequences of the virus, than on West Bay Road.

Ron Hargrave, who owns Tukka, Eagle Rays and Taco in East End, provided meals for jobless workers during the lockdown.

“We are in survival mode right now,” he said. “We are just trying to pay the bills and give the staff that are here as many hours as possible.”

Staffing levels have come down from 55 to 14 across the three restaurants since the crisis began.

Restaurant owners who spoke to the Cayman Compass were broadly supportive of government’s cautious approach to reopening the borders.

“As much as I don’t like it, I think it is the best approach right now,” said De Riso. “The last thing we want is to reopen and close again, reopen and close; we can’t survive like that.”

Hargrave believes the first phase of reopening in September will have some impact for businesses.

“I am hopeful that an influx of returning residents and property owners in October can give us a boost through to the end of the year.”

Support of loyal patrons helps

Luigi Moxam, owner of Cayman Cabana on the George Town waterfront, said the loyalty and support of local customers had helped the business survive during lockdown.

The restaurant offered deliveries for the first time in its history in order to stay alive.

“I was running around the island like Mario Kart delivering food,” said Moxam.
Cayman Cabana has reopened from Wednesday to Sunday.

Moxam believes the outdoor restaurant’s reputation as a place that specialises in local food and celebrates local culture means it can do well in the domestic market.

Cayman Cabana has relied on a loyal local customer base.

“We have been fortunate to have an amazing reception from people appreciating our food and our service,” he said. “I am so grateful to my staff and to everyone that comes in here. I am grateful to still be in business.”

Things starting to look up

Mueri said NM Ventures restaurants have been doing quite well since the reopening, adding that happy hours and Sunday barbecues at Karoo have been very popular.

Deckers, which operated as a headquarters for the Acts of Random Kindness charity’s soup kitchen during the crisis, is closed during the week but is doing good business Friday to Sunday, he said.

The group lost around 40% of its staff during the lockdown but has begun hiring again.

Mueri said he had taken on two new Caymanian employees referred through the WORC department and was looking to steadily build back business.

While he said his venues are “doing OK”, Mueri acknowledged that was not the case for everyone. He said he hoped landlords would show restraint on rents and help those that are struggling to stay in business.

He believes the goal for everyone is to hang in there until tourism comes back and then for Cayman to prove itself once again as a safe destination and culinary capital of the region.

“I would like to say that most will survive,” Mueri said. “I think the goal is to get to December 1; if you get there then we are through the biggest problems.”

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  1. I completely agree with Cayman’s restrictions for coming onto the island from the U.S. They are being very responsible but… I have a home in West Bay but it is virtually impossible to comply with their rules. It is impossible to apply for a Covid test, get the results, and arrive in Cayman within 72 hours. Considering there are no commercial flights, only charter only the VERY rich or famous will be able to meet these restrictions. Don’t hold your breath thinking there will be any meaningful influx of tourists after Sept. 1., at least not until the U.S. gets its act together. Perhaps more like sometime well into next year. Can’t wait to get back down and support the local economy.